July 11, 2014
I watched with dismay the Panorama programme aired on 7th July 2014 called “Bedlam behind bars.” It made me think about how many of Langley House Trust’s service users have enduring mental health problems and how some of them served their sentence within standard prisons despite exhibiting signs of mental illness. Some individuals ended up on segregation units for either bad behaviour or for their own protection.
Effect on behaviour
A number of years ago I was seconded to work in a local prison as a Probation Officer. One of my duties was to oversee a probation contact with prisoners on a small standard segregation unit and a segregation unit within a hospital wing. I found that those segregated on the hospital wing were very ill and often displayed distressing behaviour, which included throwing themselves around the cell unable to converse with any professional that tried to interact with them.
“Prison within a prison”
A BBC article in 2006 tried to highlight the issue of segregation and called segregation or ‘seg’ units a “prison within a prison” (a). Professor David Wilson stated that long term solitary confinement has a negative effect on an individual’s wellbeing. He said, “It cuts them off. They don’t interact, they don’t eat in company, not able to socialise, they lose interpersonal skills, become withdrawn and depressed and in some cases, can become suicidal.” (a)
The Prison Reform Trust issued advice on how long prisoners in the UK can be put into segregation (b). The UK Prison service uses segregation as a method of protecting others or protecting prisoners themselves. It is important to acknowledge that segregation is not used as much as it is in some other countries.
However, those who have seen the distress caused by the imposition of such sanctions, I am sure would want prison authorities to sparingly use the sanction, only when it is absolutely necessary and only to protect others.
Segregation should not be used for inmates with serious mental health issues
For inmates with serious mental health issues the option of segregation should never be used. Instead these individuals should be swiftly moved to mental health units (such as medium secure units) that have the facilities to deal with the presenting symptoms of the prisoner. Any delay in moving them to suitable healthcare risks the prisoner’s symptoms worsening or indeed increases the risk of self-harm or suicide attempts.
Unmet mental health need in prison
In 2008 the Prison Reform Trust undertook a review called ‘Too little too late: An independent review of unmet mental health need in prison’ (c) which indicated various issues in relation to those with mental health issues being inappropriately dealt with in prisons. The review received responses from 57 of the Independent Monitoring Boards: “over twenty boards specifically stated that they frequently saw prisoners who were too ill to be in prison…. and just over half of boards who responded stated that they were aware of serious delays in arranging for transfers of prisoners identified as severely mentally ill and who should be promptly transferred to appropriate NHS care.”
In my view those with severe mental health problems need to be swiftly and appropriately dealt with, not just for their sake but for the safety of their fellow inmates and the prison staff. Standard prisons (even the hospital wings) in my opinion do not have adequate facilities to properly deal with the behaviour or symptoms of those with severe mental health issues. It is important if a prisoner is exhibiting anti-social behaviour (due to mental health issues) that the underlying cause to this behaviour is dealt with rather than sanctioning them to live apart from other inmates which can exacerbate the symptoms of their mental health.
This week’s blog is from Tracy Wild, CEO, Langley House Trust, 11th July 2014.