Prisons lack mental health expertise

A prisoner with serious mental health issues and who could not control his bodily functions was constantly locked up alone in a cell for his own safety because staff had no training in how to cope with him.

The situation was revealed by the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, during a cross-party Oireachtas sub-committee meeting on penal reform yesterday.

Speaking during a discussion on the lack of specialist care for people with mental health issues in jails, the independent watchdog said his team were met with the “distressing scene” during a recent onsite visit.

Mr Reilly did not reveal the prison involved, and said that after his office intervened and contacted the Irish Prison Service the man was transferred to the Central Mental Hospital.

He said the incident underlined the serious lack of adequate services for prisoners with specific needs in overcrowded jails.

“That person was not able to control their bodily functions, or anything, really. He was lying on the floor of the room and was locked up for his own safety. But he shouldn’t have been in prison,” Mr Reilly said.

“Training for prison officers is totally different to training for a nurse.

“I’m not attaching blame to the prisons, or saying if you have a mental illness you should be released, but there has to be some other way to deal with them.”

During the meeting, which included presentations by the recently formed Care After Prison group and the Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offen-ders organisation, concerns were also raised about the lack of drug addiction serv-ices and return-to-education programmes for inmates and those recently released.

Mr Reilly said long-term prisoners are increasingly becoming homeless on release, causing further problems for both them and their communities.

Care After Prison, a pilot project which has been operating in Dublin 2 and Dublin 8 since October, is offering education, housing, addiction and counselling services for 59 recently released people in these areas.

While the group’s chief executive, Paul MacKay, accepted the results are within a short timeframe, he said in the four months the project has been in place none of the former prisoners have re-offended.

A separate meeting of the sub-committee on penal reform yesterday morning also raised concerns about Ireland’s surging prison population levels. It said that between 2006 and 2011 the number of people in prisons across the country had increased by 30%, pushing Ireland’s per capita prison population above the likes of the Netherlands and Germany, although it remains roughly in line with the average level across the EU.

Figures provided to the sub-committee by the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service also found that while the number of people imprisoned for short sentences has fallen since 2006, long-term jail sentences are on the rise.

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