Positivity not Prison
Before joining Creative Support, I worked at one of the largest prisons in the UK and have seen, first hand, the negative impact of prison on those with mental illness.
72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders, and 20% of prisoners have four of the five major mental health disorders.
Despite these shocking statistics prison mental health care is, at best, an afterthought. According to research by the Prison Reform Trust, 80% of people do not think prison is the right place for people with mental illness.
People who should never have been sent to prison in the first place, and instead should have been put into mental health or social care, are being discharged into the community without any support. They are trapped in a cycle of offending because we never get to the root of the problem, and address the causes of their behaviour.
In my opinion, the job of a prison should be two-fold; to keep the public safe from violent offenders and to rehabilitate and resettle prisoners in order to prevent further crimes. Part of this rehabilitation must include help for mental illness, however ‘crowd control’ is often the focus of daily life on the wing, and prisoners with mental health problems are not given the crucial help they need.
The current prison population is 84,305 and the average cost to house one prisoner is around £40,000 per year. Despite the current unstable economic climate, there are things that can be done, starting with scrapping the idea that prison is the best place for all those who commit a crime.
I strongly believe that locking people up is counter-productive to recovery from mental illness. Preparing prisoners for release is key to rehabilitation and a vital part of that process is ensuring that they are able to maintain close family ties in preparation for their reintegration back into the community. A Prison Service guideline states that “helping prisoners maintain and develop appropriate community ties and prepare for their release, including by securing future employment and accommodation, is particularly important.”
Without personalised care for prisoners with mental illness, this guideline is merely a fantasy, as living in a closed environment, with no access to mental health services, can only lead to deterioration of mental health.
Those not getting the help they need, resort to harming themselves or even committing suicide. They can also find it difficult to adjust to life when they leave prison – putting an enormous strain on families and many end up re-offending.
People with mental health disorders should be cared for, not incarcerated for convenience.
There are some excellent initiatives, such as peer support scheme ‘Listeners’, in which the Samaritans trains prisoners to listen in complete confidence to their fellow prisoners. The scheme aims to reduce the number of suicides in prison and reduce self-harm. These schemes, alongside, person centered mental health care, should be the future.
If we are determined to continue to incarcerate people with mental illness, we need to banish the ‘lock ‘em up and leave ‘em’ mentality, and promote recovery and positivity!
By Natasha Bolton