Dr Conor O’Neill, consultant forensic psychiatrist, Central Mental Hospital Dundrum, also said that 44% of the people dealt with by the diversion service in Cloverhill Prison in Dublin last year were homeless.
Dr O’Neill, alongside his colleague on the Cloverhill court diversion and liaison scheme, Dr Damien Mohan, is among the speakers at the two-day annual conference of the Irish Association of Suicidology, which begins today in Westport.
Developing the theme of ‘The Vulnerable Prisoner’, Dr O’Neill and Dr Mohan will look at the work carried out in Cloverhill over the past eight years.
During that time, more than 25,000 prisoners at the jail have been screened, with approximately 4,000 then assessed and of those, 800 diverted for treatment, typically to community-based services. Dr O’Neill said that “in the main”, those that required treatment were on remand for minor or relatively trivial offences, yet may have had a serious mental health illness, including schizophrenia.
“At times, one feels that prisons are being used in place of hospitals, if you like,” he said.
Dr O’Neill said it was often difficult for gardaí to make a quick distinction between someone who may be on drugs or intoxicated, and someone with a mental health problem, and that in some cases, it can be a case of both.
Gardaí might also have concerns both for the safety of an individual and of society, leading to some people being placed on remand.
The programme being operated in Cloverhill was a method of trying to divert people who need treatment away from the “toxic” prison environment.
However, he stressed that the service was “not a get-out-of-jail-free card”, adding that the mere fact of a diagnosis does not mean someone was not responsible for their actions.
He said an estimated 4% of the prison population had a psychotic illness and that approximately 3% of new remand cases were actively psychotic. He said a lot of work had been done in the past year to help in this area, including the hiring of additional psychiatric nurses
However, he said the prison population, featuring a high number of young males, often using drugs, were a high-risk category for suicide. He also stressed the importance of keeping drugs out of prisons, stating they exacerbated issues of violence, bullying and intimidation.