My thoughts… Mental Health…

Does prison fail inmates with mental illness?


Mentally ill inmates now comprise a substantial portion of the prison population and pose administrative and therapeutic challenges to prison administrators and mental health professionals. Depending on what reports you read, anything up to 90% of prisoners are said to have mental health problems of some description. Mental illness can encompass anything from serious personality disorders, issues of self abuse up to drug and alcohol dependency. The prison service in the UK has under its care one of the most vulnerable and mentally unhealthy populations. There is no national blueprint for delivering mental health care in custody. I personally was one of the extremely lucky ones. A patient on the ‘Day-care Centre’ in Pentonville Prison which was a real-life line for me. This was run by a forward thinking lady ”Debbie Murphy”. This lady went above and beyond her job description/specification to make sure patients like myself had a constructive, meaningful activities 5 days a week. Furthermore, a solid structured action and care plan was put in place for me and I am living an industrious productive life today.

Accordingly, despite ongoing concerns about overcrowding, prison has become the default option for many who pose little public risk. Some would argue that the Criminal Justice System has taken over from the public health system as the destination for many with mental health problems. Which is unfair for everybody within the prison estates, including prison officers, inmates and the patients themselves. The aim of the prison service is to offer an equivalence of care to inmates as the NHS. The reality is that this is not achieved. Problems do not just stem from a Judiciary with little understanding of the true impacts of mental illness, also from a society starved of mental health resources in communities. Of course there are many people in prison who it is felt should not be there. Imprisonment is an expensive and ineffectual way of dealing with inmates with mental health concerns and those deemed vulnerable. The fact is that we are seeing too many people sent to prison who ought to be diverted to better alternatives than being imprisoned. Without diversion, even a short spell in prison can seriously damage a person’s health, family ties and prospects of life, while doing nothing to tackle mental health, drug or alcohol problems.

The problems extend well beyond the sentencing philosophy of the Courts and the obvious inability to divert where diversion is the right choice. That is not to say that a prison sentence should not follow for the most dangerous of offenders. It is a balancing act that poses difficult challenges for professionals involved, including the probation service on whom the Courts place so much reliance. (Another post)  As I have said, research does tend to suggest that prisons are failing the mentally-ill with poor facilities and undertrained staff…

Assuming that an offender is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, there are many problems that are encountered. One of the first problems faced for the inmate and the prison system is one of detection. Even in those cases where mental illness/health is identified, there are problems with definition, diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Of those inmates who manage to get assessed properly, they are often left untreated or not treated adequately; leading to problems on release and an increased risk of further offending. Inmates with short sentences often experience lengthy delays in waiting for transfers to hospital for specialist care. Such delays often exceed the length of the sentence and result in no treatment at all.


Inmates with even a mild mental illness encompassing learning difficulties experience problems. They often find that they cannot progress with courses because of literacy and numeracy deficiencies. Health teams in prisons are often isolated from other departments and not enough activity is provided to inmates. Locked in cells for lengthy periods can do nothing other than exacerbate mental illness, including depression.

Studies have consistently shown that the lack of resources within prison have an adverse impact on mental health. Jail-based treatment is often poor, but with some intervention can help. In the USA, research has shown that public health efforts in conjunction with the Criminal Justice System has taken advantage of incarceration in helping mental illness by extensive and continuous jail house treatment and has shown to reduce offending and relapses markedly.
One very identifiable hurdle for those inmates with mental health issues is the fact that they are often seen as a discipline problem rather than someone who requires real help. When I was a young lad in Feltham YOI, I personally had an emotional breakdown and was treated inhumanely. Sadly I had repeated outbursts and anti-social behaviour are often the hallmarks of a mental illness. Where instances of this type occur, as they did, the reaction of the prison staff was to immediately  invoke some level of discipline, including violence and to place the inmate in segregation rather than be seen by a mental health team, nobody would discuss the causes of the behaviour and provide treatment where it is needed. Controlling mental illness by punishment is not the answer. I am now 54 years old and have watched, been part of a prison system for over 40  years. Sadly not very much has changed with mental health within our prison estates in all that time.

Now that we have a new Government who have announced significant public spending cuts and reviews, will the most vulnerable, just because they are serving a prison sentence, continue to be ignored? Assuming this will not be the case, the mentally ill and vulnerable within our prison system deserve greater attention. A multi-agency approach is required with sufficient funding to help identify those who require the appropriate care. Those who need to be diverted should be and put in to hospital care. Those with lesser disabilities ought to be diagnosed and treated earlier. Prison healthcare staff require better training so that they can provide better care. This will then be a massive step in the solid foundations for a better system. Atleast one that may work…

3 thoughts on “My thoughts… Mental Health…

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  1. I find it shocking to read that in prison institutions vulnerable people meet inescapable circumstances which hit them hardest right in their very vulnerabilities. Such a system makes no sense, it is inhumane and morally wrong. A decent society treats all their citizens decently, and as such the UK has much to learn about humane imprisonment from other countries on the continent with much better, reformed systems of imprisonment.
    One observation that you make is very important: that expressions of mental illness are often seen as discipline problems rather than brain disfunction. I have often seen this myself in my former job as a tutor for students from secondary school, where learning disabilities are often seen as discipline problems rather than mental inability. The right understanding and diagnosis of such problems starts with a willingness to really see the other person, beyond our own expectations of how people should be.
    In my opinion there should be much more emphasis on training in social abilities, such as developing true empathy, in our school system, starting from a very young age. Just a bit more empathy could achieve big changes in society at large.

  2. Marc, you are absolutely correct. I myself believe that, social and emotional skills should be part of the school curriculum. As we are aware, lack of social skills and emotionally maturity is the foundation to a dysfunctional lifestyle.

  3. But these are often ingrained mental health problems- often to do with attachment and parenting issues?

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