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  • Alisha Chady

Mental Health in Prison

I recently read a guide to looking after your mental health whilst in prison. Having previously worked in prison as a counsellor, I had a few thoughts about mental health and offending and the effects of prison on mental health.

From what I can see, the system is failing on two parts; firstly support for those with mental health issues prior to offending and secondly, creating an environment in prisons that actively negatively impacts on mental health.

With regards to my first point, the numbers of men and women with existing mental health concerns prior to entering prison is not an insignificant amount with 26% of women and 16% of men stating that they had received some form of treatment for a mental health problem in the year leading up to their incarceration. Within this, one in five people did not receive care from a mental health professional whilst in prison.

With numbers of people with existing problems in a place that creates more mental health issues, it is hardly a surprise that tensions run high between the staff and the offenders, that drug use is so common and suicide and self-harm is rampant.

Life in prison has many adverse affects on ones health, such as, being locked away in your cell for up to 23 hours a day, bullying from other prisoners and members of staff, witnessing acts of violence, self-harm, take downs and restraints on a day-to-day basis, the prison persona you have to develop to stay safe and appear "hard" and missing out on important parts of your loved ones life, such as birthdays, religious holidays and funerals.

All of this is then increased due to the current staff shortages. Understaffing causes the staff to be stressed, which could make them ill, which would then put more pressure on the staff that are remaining. This added pressure and lack of staff has an adverse affect on the prisoners due to time out of their cells, gym sessions, library, and yard time being cut.

You then have those people who entered prison without any mental health concerns, but then leave with one. You have the people who for example, witnessed their pad mate commit suicide who then leave prison with post-traumatic stress.

Or there are those who, to cope with prison life, turn to drugs. Imagine being sent to prison only to be addicted to drugs upon your release because you desperately needed something to make your stay bearable.

Considering that death by suicide is 8.6 times more likely in prison then anywhere else, it really is time to make improvements to mental health services in prisons and expand what is already in place.

70% of those who died from suicide in prison had already been identified as having mental health needs, but concerns over these needs are only flagged upon entry for the prison for about half of this number.

So what can be done to change this?

The most obvious solution would be to correct staff shortages and make sure that staff are trained in matters of mental health, in 40% of prisons inspected in 2016/17, prison officers had inadequate or no training to know when to refer a person for mental health support.

Having a full working staff will enable prisoners to attend gym sessions and recreational activities. Other ideas would be to ensure that other services like chaplains, listeners and counselling are readily advertised throughout the wings so that prisoners know what services are available to them.

When mental health in prisoners is looked at with importance and changes start to ripple through the criminal justice system, maybe then we will start to see a system that focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Statistics taken from www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk