The Prison System's Growing Mental Health Crisis

The number of male prisoners that have been transferred to hospital under the Mental Health Act has risen 20% between 2011 and 2014. At the same time the number of male offends sent to hospital first rather than prison fell 25%. This is according to Ministry of Justice figures obtained by a freedom of information request by the Guardian. It would appear the UK prison system in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Men dominate the prison population. As of the 9th of September 2016 81,124 out of a total of 84,967 prisoners were male. This is likely to be in part because of how men deal with our issues. We are more likely when tackling an emotional problems to turn towards risk taking behaviours to sustain us (taking drugs, drinking and speeding for example) where women are more likely to turn to social support. Men would rather be on the other side of the law than seek help.

Prison is not the best place to sort out your issues. Going to prison is an act of killing time. For the length of your sentence you will surrender control of your life: where you go, what you do and when you do it. You have all the time in the world to think your life and your regrets. Support may be available but that does not mean it always can or will be accessed. This is not a place for those with mental health problems yet many people who need help find themselves amongst the monotony and stress of prison life.

Prisons will not shield you from your less than healthy coping mechanisms either. Almost a third of prisoners surveyed by the Centre for Social Justice said that illegal drugs were easy to obtain in prison and these are not institutions brimming with role models to help you on your way. Add in over stretched staff tacking budget cuts and you have a recipe for disaster. Indeed in the 12 months before March 2016 self-harm in prisons rose 27%, self-inflicted deaths rose 28% and assaults rose 31%.

Our prisons seem to be amid a mental health crisis. Either people who need support end up behind bars or the condition of life for those behind bars causes their mental health to decline. Either way leads to the obvious question of what to do about it.  

There will be many suggested answers to such a big question. Many will require additional funding like more mental health screenings in the justice system or simply more staff in prisons. These seem unlikely unless government policy takes a dramatic U-turn. Others might be more affordable – training for existing staff and attempts to change attitudes about mental health for example though even here more funding makes it easier. Other possibilities may even save money – decriminalisation of drug users or a well thought out and implemented reformation of prison management for example. There will be no easy answers.

The Ministry of Justice is trying to implement improvements. They told the Guardian that they are investing £1.3 Billion into prison estate and training staff “to respond effectively to prisoners experiencing suicidal, self-harm and mental health issues”. If these improvements lead to the situation improving remains to be seen.

Outside of the Ministry of Justice’s jurisdiction we need to work to change attitudes around mental health. We need to promote the message that it is OK to talk and seek help for the problems in our lives before our mental health suffers under their weight. So that people don’t need to turn to drugs, to alcohol and other distractions and land themselves in trouble.

Photo by Herry Lawford originally found on Flickr used under creative commons licence