Fr Peter McVerry: Time for 'action, not talk' on mental illness and prisons

Fr Peter McVerry: Time for 'action, not talk' on mental illness and prisons

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Leading homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry has called for "action, not talk" following a highly critical report by a European torture watchdog of rising numbers of homeless people with psychiatric illnesses “languishing” in prisons.

Responding to the inspection report of the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), the Irish Prison Service said there is an “urgent need” to improve services to prisoners with mental illnesses.

While the CPT commended many changes in Irish prisons — lower prisoner numbers, reductions in violence and improvements in health care — the report highlighted glaring problems in the treatment of prisoners with psychiatric illnesses.

The report expressed “major concern” at rising numbers of homeless people in prisons — where, it said, their condition deteriorates.

It said many of these homeless people could be bailed by the courts into the care of community psychiatric facilities but that the HSE will not take them because they are homeless.

“Community psychiatric services are geographically based,” said Fr Peter McVerry. 

“They will only accept people from their own locality and if you’re homeless no one will accept you because you don’t have a local address. It’s the structure of the mental health services that has to be changed.” 

Responding to Government statements that it is setting up a “High Level Task Force” on prison, addiction and mental health, Fr McVerry said: “We need action, not talk. We don’t need more reports.” 

Read more Cormac O'Keeffe - Ireland still 'tolerates the intolerable' in its prisons

John Saunders, CEO of mental health charity, Shine, and chair of the Mental Health Commission, said the report is “an indictment” and said the unacceptable cases in it “may be the tip of the iceberg”.

He said: “There in an inverse relationship between the levels of mental health services available and the number of people with mental health illnesses held in prisons. In simple terms, the poorer the mental health services are, the greater the number of people with mental health difficulties in prison services. Prisons, no matter how enlightened, cannot offer a therapeutic environment.” 

The CPT highlighted problems of severely ill prisoners getting into the Central Mental Hospital.

Professor Harry Kennedy, CMH executive clinical director, told Today with Claire Byrne it is “almost impossible” to find a hospital to accept a homeless person charged with minor offences because they do not have an address, adding that this is because mental health services are based on people having an address in the catchment area.

More generally, he said “access to treatment needs to be easier and earlier” for people with mental illness.

He said the problem now is that many of these people have been left untreated for so long that they are no longer committing minor offences, but serious crimes.

He said psychiatric hospital services have been cut “below the bone”.

Prof Kennedy said the new CMH will only bring Ireland to “about a third” of the international average for forensic beds, while the number of general psychiatric beds stands at about “a third to a quarter” of the international average.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust called on authorities to act on the recommendations of the CPT in full.

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice called for community-based services for those who are homeless, addicted, or mentally ill and secure wards for mentally unwell prisoners outside the prison system.

The Irish Prison Service welcomed positive findings on committal numbers, violence, health care, and staff-prisoner relations.

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