Huge backlog for psychiatric assessments

2 July 2011 – Virginia Khumalo says that the situation for mentally challenged detainees awaiting psychiatric evaluations reminds her of the Orwellian adage, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Ananias Ndlovu writes for the Saturday Star.

The 61-year-old Orlando woman tried for months to get her son a bed at Sterkfontein – the hospital that had treated him previously.  Her son, Raymond Khumalo, 28, was arrested in December after allegedly assaulting his neighbour in Soweto.

Raymond, who is being held at Johannesburg Correctional Centre (Sun City), is still waiting for a bed at Sterkfontein. When he was put on the list, he was number 140. Today, he is number 31 on the list and, according to hospital sources, it could still take some months for him to get a bed.

Khumalo is furious and she wants to know why Ben Engelbrecht was allowed to skip the queue.

When murder accused Engelbrecht, 51, appeared for his bail application on Wednesday, the court ordered that he see a psychiatrist within a week to check if he is fit to stand trial. Engelbrecht was arrested on 27 May for allegedly killing his wife and son before allegedly trying to commit suicide. He has spent just a month at Johannesburg Correctional Centre.

Engelbrecht is accused of strangling his wife Ina, 49, and his wheelchair-bound son, Kobus, 22, in their beds. His son was paralysed in a high school rugby accident. Engelbrecht contacted his brother following their deaths.

The brother allegedly found him trying to commit suicide. He was in his car, which was in the garage, with the engine running and a pool hose allegedly attached to the exhaust pipe. The brother pulled him out of the vehicle. Paramedics later declared Engelbrecht medically fit.

Meanwhile 98 other inmates, including Khumalo, have been waiting to see psychiatrists for months – and they are still waiting.

Engelbrecht will see a psychiatrist at the hospital section of the prison and on Wednesday next week a doctor’s report will be presented and his bail application will continue. The other inmates’ cases have been remanded for months because they can’t be taken in for evaluation.

If the usual procedures and guidelines for getting a bed at Sterkfontein were followed in the case of Engelbrecht, he would be at the bottom of a list numbering 98 – and it could have taken months or even up to a year for him to get a bed.

“My son has been waiting for a bed for six months now and I was told it might take up to three or four months for him to get it. This is not fair. This is because I don’t have money and I am a poor old woman from Soweto. My son has a file at Sterkfontein but he had to wait like any other inmate,” said Virginia Khumalo.

This week, after Engelbrecht’s lawyer, SW van der Merwe was told that there were no beds available at Sterkfontein and that Engelbrecht must wait in a queue, he asked the court to subpoena Dr Eddie Pak, head of forensic services at Sterkfontein, to explain why there was no bed available for his client.

On Wednesday, Dr Pak said that the bed crisis at psychiatric hospitals was a major problem. He said the backlog was slowly decreasing, but inmates still had to wait for up to eight months to get a bed and be evaluated.

Dr Pak said there were three beds available at Sun City prison with one psychiatrist and that one of these could be immediately available for Engelbrecht. Usually, he said, petty crimes such as theft, assault and burglary, could be evaluated in prisons but with crimes such as murder and rape, inmates had to be evaluated by a panel at an institution such as Sterkfontein.

But Engelbrecht’s case would be treated differently, Dr Pak said. He would be assessed by a prison doctor and the report would be presented in court. Engelbrecht’s case was postponed to July 6, when his bail application will continue.

Sterkfontein can only accommodate 30 remand (awaiting trial) patients and each patient needs to be given a 30-day evaluation period.

Khumalo has been receiving treatment at Orlando Clinic since 2004. According to his family, he has been heavily treated for mental instability. In January, the Orlando Magistrate’s Court issued an order that Khumalo must be taken to Sterkfontein for evaluation. – Additional reporting by Sapa.


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The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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