Prison break; mental health inside prison
Since May 2017 the prison population has grown beyond projected figures to 86,413 despite fewer offences being brought to court. An official capacity of 87,209 in the UK’s prisons is fast being approached. With conditions in prisons already at breaking point and provisions for prisoners worse than ever, the simple fact is that our country needs to overhaul the way in which we they are treated, especially those with mental health problems.
It is a damning indictment that the pride we place, or at least once did, on the provision of an NHS for all does not extend to those in custody. The Guardian recently reported that medical provision was so bad in some prisons that if it were a privately run service outside, it would be shut down. It should be noted that those in custody include defendants awaiting trial as well as those serving sentences, not that the distinction should matter, as health care ought to be a basic expectation.
The purpose of any sentence is not just to punish but to rehabilitate; we cannot as a society do that, or claim to do that, if the most vulnerable are left to suffer. Mental health services are in decline following years of cut-backs. As a result more defendants with mental illnesses are coming into the prison system – it is unsurprising that during the most recent HMI visit to HMP Pentonville 25% of the population declared that they were suffering depression or suicidal tendencies on arrival, with 84% declaring problems of some kind more generally.
One of our own clients has reported that in response to his request for assistance with his serious mental health issues he was given a colouring in book. It is a sad reflection of our times that the care provision has reached such a sorry state of affairs that medical professionals actively avoid practising in some establishments.
UK prisons; profit over care?
Prisons too have suffered cut-backs; successive Conservative governments have sold off prison estate and the running of prisons to private investors. The emphasis has moved to profit over care. The direct result of those cut backs are that prisoners face more time in their cells because the ratio of staff to population is 1 to 50. Imagine being responsible for 50 young men or women, all with their own unique challenges and demands. Shockingly our zoos have a better ratio of staff to population. Couple this with the lack of appropriate mental health care and one can see why there is a rising trend of prison riots and disturbances.
Internet and mobile phones for prisoners?
Although a recent suggestion by MP Vicky Ford that inmates at HMP Chelmsford be given access to mobile phones and other technology was met with ridicule on social media, the idea is sound. With almost one in three adult offenders re-offending there has to be better support for prisoners post-release. Allowing better and more regular contact with families and friends would surely instil a sense of trust in prisoners which in turn is likely to improve self-esteem and confidence.
Our society has changed, we are now connected in far more ways than before in a digital era. Withdrawing that freedom of contact from prisoners is punishment, earning it back demonstrates that we trust them to use it properly. Incentivising learning and development with a trust based reward system has to be better than the current attitude of excessive lockdown.
If the prison population continues to grow and funding continues to decrease, we will soon be at tipping point with a prison system that does nothing to educate and rehabilitate offenders nor maintain their physical or mental health and wellbeing whilst inside. Of course, there has to be an aspect of punishment, and prison should be a deterrent, but that does not mean that we should treat our criminals with no dignity, deny them basic rights and an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.
As we often remind the court the purpose of any sentence is punishment and rehabilitation, let’s not lose sight of the latter.
John Howey, Senior Solicitor
Please note that the information contained in this article was correct at the time of writing. There may have been updates to the law since the article was written, which may affect the information and advice given therein.