Linda Bryant, director of criminal justice services at Together for Mental Wellbeing, said: “While we welcome figures showing more prisoners being treated in hospitals, it could be that people maybe do not have a significant mental disorder when they go into prisons – but the prison environment might exacerbate those conditions to the extent that they might need to be transferred out.”
Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said it would be concerning if mental health problems were not being picked up earlier. “If things were working, you would imagine there is potential that hospital orders would go up … [The data] suggests people are not getting picked up in the way that they should be, earlier on in the process,” he said.
The former director of the Prison Reform Trust Juliet Lyon said: “If you’re thinking about someone that’s got mental health needs, it’s hard to imagine a less conducive environment to getting better than a prison. There’s a tension with what’s currently happening in our prisons: the lack of activity, the shortage of staff, the appalling rise of suicide and self-harm, and violence in prisons. “I think the only way really to effect change is to establish the last resort principle that you use prison as a place of absolute last resort in the justice system.”
The father of one man who killed himself in prison said his son had mental health problems and should have been dealt with differently.
Mark Saunders, 48, a bus driver from Basildon, Essex, said the family had been promised several times that 25-year-old Dean was in a “secure, safe” space before he killed himself in a cell at Chelmsford prison in January.
The family believe he should have been detained under the Mental Health Act. “I would have given my life to save him,” he said of his son, who was married and had a child. “And then you have to hand him over and trust them. And you trust them to continue that care. But they didn’t.”
Dean Saunders was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after an incident in which he injured relatives who were trying to prevent him from stabbing himself. Mark Saunders, who was among the injured, had not wanted his son to be sent to prison and felt that he needed help.
Saunders was initially on constant suicide watch in prison after he told a doctor he planned to kill himself.
“He should not have come off constant watch, he should not have been put in Chelmsford in the first place,” said Mark Saunders. “But once he was there, they had a duty of care and they had all of that information at hand.”
The MoJ said: “Every day, our healthcare staff provide support to thousands of prisoners at risk of self-harm or suicide, frequently saving lives through timely intervention.
“But we must improve the way mental health problems are dealt with in the criminal justice system. That is why we are investing £1.3bn to transform the prison estate, while also training staff to respond effectively to prisoners experiencing suicidal, self-harm and mental health issues.”
According to statistics released by the MoJ, there were 34,586 incidents of self-harm in UK prisons last year, an average of one every 15 minutes. There were 105 apparent “self-inflicted” deaths in prisons in the 12 months to June 2016, an all-time high and a 28% increase on the year before.
Andy Bell, the deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said there were big pressures on people in the prison system, including “those working in it and those imprisoned in it”.
Bell said a national scheme was being rolled out that aimed to treat people before they entered the criminal justice system. In an acknowledgement of the damaging effect that prisons can have on mental health, Liaison and Diversion services are supposed to identify offenders with vulnerabilities at first contact.
In a report released in January, the prisons ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, found that 70% of the prisoners who killed themselves had one or more identified mental health requirements and noted “too many examples of poor communication and disjointed care”. Estimates by the Prison Reform Trustsuggest that the majority have three or more mental health needs.
The former shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger said: “Our mental health services are struggling to cope with the growing demand and professionals are under increasing pressure. The government must translate their rhetoric into reality and make mental health the urgent priority it needs to be.”
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