Mentally ill prisoners are waiting as long as 15 weeks for a transfer to a secure hospital after they had been assessed by psychiatrists, according to a BBC investigation. Radio 4’s File on Four, which was broadcast earlier this week, reported that ‘hundreds if not thousands’ of prisoners with serious mental health issues were failing to receive the vital healthcare they needed and the delays were ‘a clear breach’ of government guidelines that prisoners should be moved within 28 days.
File on 4 also revealed that last year almost half of mentally unwell people in prison who were assessed by psychiatrist as needing hospital treatment were refused a transfer to hospital. That finding was based on the responses of 19 mental health trusts (Freedom of Information requests had been sent to 54 trusts).
Prisons were ‘not suitable places for people who are mentally ill’, Andy Keens-Down, chief executive of Prisons Advice and Care Trust (PACT) told reporter Annabel Deas. ‘If you are a paranoid schizophrenic or you are clinically depressed and perhaps you have also suffered childhood trauma, the prison cell is the worst possible place for you to be. If you are ill already you will get more ill in prison and you are at risk of losing your life.’ He went on to say that many people arrive in prison without a proper diagnosis and the problem was compounded by health records not arriving with the prisoner from the court.
Keens-Down said: ‘The more fundamental problem is that even if they are assessed as having mental health conditions, even if they have a long psychiatric history, if the court has chosen to put that person in prison there is very little the prison authority can do to get that person back into mental health care.’
The programme pointed out that mental health community treatment orders were only available in ‘a handful of courts’. NHS England said that they would be rolling out more mental health treatment requirement programs and ‘by the end of 2022 they will be available in half the courts in England and Wales.
The programme also highlighted how problems were exacerbated by the lack of experienced prison officers and pointed out that between 2010 and 2015, 10,000 prison officer jobs were axed and 4,000 new (less experienced) staff were recruited subsequently. The Prison Officers Association said that the service was ‘close to breaking point’ and officers leaving in droves. According to a survey of 378 POA members, 312 said that they deal ‘often or every day’ with prisoners that they think should be in hospital rather than in prison.