The recent tragic death in Mountjoy prison highlights the need to deal with prisoners who suffer from mental illness, according to Fine Gael Deputy Health Spokesman and President of the Irish Association of Suicidology, Deputy Dan Neville.
“Mentally ill offenders should be afforded the option of a treatment programme instead of prison. A recent report shows that 60% of female and 35% of male prisoners have suffered from mental illness. This report again highlights the scandalous way the psychiatric services are under resourced, and how people who need medical intervention are ending up in prison. In most cases these prisoners are convicted for petty crime, and are not a danger to society. We must address this issue, for the sake of the ill prisoner, and in certain circumstances for the protection of other prisoners.
“Of the prison population, 40% of women and 25% of men in prison have attempted suicide or committed self harm. These people are not receiving the urgent treatment they need. In excess of 600 prisoners who are in danger of taking their own lives each year end up in padded cells. A witness described the scene in one of the cells as follows:
‘I saw a prisoner, a man in his 40s, lying in his underpants in a foetal position on the floor with a pot beside him. The cell in question was approximately the size of an outsized refrigerator.’
“Each year, 300 people who have six months’ prevalence of severe and enduring mental illness are committed to prison. The treatment of mentally ill prisoners is an affront to the human dignity of both prisoners and the prison staff.
“Unfortunately, this situation has been known about for many years. I am not confident that the recent report, while highlighting the disgraceful situation, will have any impact on the problem. The Government has failed disgracefully in developing the psychiatric serves, and its resources have been reduced from 11% of the health budget in 1997 to 7% in 2006. What chance is there for the prison population, the most marginalised group in society, of receiving any consideration with regard to their needs for mental illness treatment?
“The Government must introduce two distinct but co-ordinated systems, one outside the prisons in the community and one inside the prisons. We must deal appropriately with psychiatric illness before it becomes criminalised. Consideration must be given to establishing a mental health court system. These would have five broad objectives:
• to preserve public safety;
• to reduce inappropriate incarceration of mentally ill offenders and promote their well-being;
• to relieve the Department of Justice of the need to correct inmates with mental disability;
• to reduce repeat criminal activity among mentally ill offenders;
• and to reduce psychiatric hospitalisation of mentally disabled offenders.
“These courts should have the option of imposing a carefully monitored individual plan of mental health treatment for low risk mentally ill prisoners, instead of a prison sentence. However, a court system will not be sufficient unless it is part of a well-planned and co-ordinated monitoring and service provision programme which involves the mental health services. Such an approach would involve the court services, the Departments of Justice and Social & Family Affairs, the Probation and Welfare services, and the Health Service Executive, all functioning in partnership.
“The chief aim would be to expedite and maximise alternative schemes for those who are judged fit to live in the community. The programmes would address both the need for humane treatment of the mentally ill via suitable community schemes, and the largely wasteful and ineffective financial burdens placed on the Department of Justice. Mentally ill offenders should be afforded the option of a treatment programme instead of prison, and be obliged to commit to the programme for an extended period or face imprisonment.”