Addressing the Issue of Mental Health in Prisons; Opinion

Article excerpt

Byline: JERE MY BEECHAM

ASTAGGERINGLY high proportion of the prison population suffers from mental health problems. Nine out of 10 have one or more mental health disorders, seven out of 10 two or more, many times the incidence of such problems in the general community. This not only contributes to a high level of suicide and self-harm, particularly amongst women, but also to high levels of re-offending which overall, cost around pounds 10bn a year.It's therefore not only in the interests of offenders that their mental health problems are tackled but also society's as a whole. Ensuring that the judicial and penal systems are alert to the need to recognise and treat mental illness and personality disorders is key to reducing the direct and indirect costs of reoffending.

Today I will be presenting to Newcastle City Council's cabinet a report of a scrutiny group on the Mental Health of Offenders which examines many of the issues and how they might be addressed. The report follows an earlier one on the position of ex-service personnel in the North East, many of whom find themselves in trouble on their return to civilian life, again with a high incidence of mental health problems.

It's only 10 years since the last Government made the NHS responsible for prisoners' health, and that decade has seen significant improvements in what was, frankly, an inadequate level of provision.

Nevertheless, problems remain right through the offender's pathway from arrest, through court, to prison and back into the community. The massive re-organisation of the NHS now under way raises new questions about the responsibility for commissioning and delivering health care, including mental health care, and emphasises the need for a co-ordinated approach. Hopefully this should reduce the level of offending in the first place.

We estimate that at any one time around 435 Newcastle residents will be in prison or a Young Offenders Institution in the North East, or around 750 a year. If they are to be helped, particularly with a view to avoiding re-offending, a series of steps are required involving the city council, the police, courts, probation, prisons, health trusts and GPs. …