Prisoners’ mental health - System in need of an overhaul

The mental health services are clearly not picking up people in need of psychiatric help early enough, according to a study of 615 male prisoners conducted by a team of psychiatrists from the Central Mental Hospital.

The study, which has been published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, found 47% of remand prisoners had a history of contact with community psychiatric services. The high rate of recidivism has been a serious failing of our jail system, but the latest study would suggest that nobody should really be surprised. It is absurd to expect to resolve anything if the underlying problems are essentially being ignored.

The survey found that 36% of prisoners have an alcohol disorder, while 33% are dependent on illegal drugs. A further 2% currently suffer from psychosis, while 4.6% suffer from depression. People with psychosis should be treated for mental illness, not jailed as common criminals. Individuals suffering from psychosis are over represented among remand prisoners, according to the survey.

It is estimated that nine out of 10 of the people with psychosis were charged with non-violent offences, most of which do not ultimately lead to a jail sentence. But their psychoses deepen while they were being remanded in custody awaiting trial. The study was unable to explain why this happens, but it suggested that it might be because these ill-people are treated more severely by the criminal justice system, or because they are more likely to breakdown while in prison. It noted that 372 people needed to be transferred to psychiatric hospital.

Whatever the cause, the rate of psychoses among remand prisoners after six months is much higher here than in other countries. The whole system is clearly in need of serious overhaul. The study concluded that what has been happening amounts to “a serious form of discrimination against people who are mentally ill”. Our community mental health services clearly need to re-adjust their focus. Jailing people suffering from mental illness is wrong, especially when it is only likely to exacerbate their mental condition. People who are ill are taking up space in jails, with the result that real criminals are being left on the streets. That is crazy.


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