Care in the Community: Too many mentally ill in custody, report says

URGENT action is needed to reduce the number of mentally disturbed people held in custody while awaiting trial, according to a report published today.

The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders argues that the high level of mental illness among prisoners is leading to suicides and self mutilation. It says the Government should divert many of these offenders away from the criminal justice system to health and social care.

The report cites research that found that more than one in three adult male prisoners - about 15,000 - are mentally disturbed, and about 3 per cent, 1,100, are so seriously ill they need immediate hospital treatment. Thousands of mentally disturbed people accused of minor offences are remanded in custody even though their alleged crimes would not warrant a prison sentence.

Professor Herschel Prins, who chaired Nacro's Mental Health Advisory Committee, which drew up the report, said: 'Prisons do not provide a suitable and humane environment for people who are disturbed. Imprisonment often aggravates existing mental disorders and can result in tragedy, self injury, or even death. One-third of prisoners who kill themselves have a history of mental illness.'

The report calls for a series of measures, including:

Increasing the number of court-based psychiatric assessment schemes;

Bail information schemes, in which a probation officer interviews defendants detained overnight, should automatically request information about mental health problems;

The Home Office and Department of Health should set up local groups with representatives of the criminal justice, health, and social service agencies, to develop strategies to deal with mentally ill offenders.

Diverting Mentally Disturbed Offenders from Custodial Remands and Sentences; Nacro, 169 Clapham Road, London SW9 0PU; pounds 2.

The Board of Visitors at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London has criticised the growing number of mentally disturbed prisoners being kept at the jail. 'There are no facilities for looking after them to prevent them harming themselves or others, imposing great pressure on staff,' it said.