Prisons watchdog: 'Too many of the mentally ill in jail'

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The Independent Online

Too many mentally ill offenders are jailed rather than given the specialist help that they need, the prisons watchdog has warned.

The influx has continued despite overcrowding problems in jails and repeated calls from successive home secretaries for fewer sufferers from mental illness to be locked up.

Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, protested that jail had become the "default setting" for many people who posed little risk to the public. She said the quality of treatment inside jail had declined over the past five years, with sufferers encountering a series of problems. They included inadequate screening on arrival and poor communication between the health professionals charged with their care.

Offenders who have problems with emotional well-being were at higher risk of reconviction, and yet not enough was being done to support them on release.

Ms Owers acknowledged that some mentally ill offenders had to be jailed. But she said: "There are also people who, if they were picked up earlier, need not have got so risky as they became. And there are people who are in prison with very low risk who are there simply because there's no community provision."

Arguing that resources should not be used up on people who should not be in prison in the first place, she said: "Prisons can provide better and more focused care for those who need to be there."

Ms Owers warned that the need would "always remain greater than the capacity" unless community-based mental health care services improved and offenders were directed to them "before, instead of, and after custody".

She found that 80 per cent of mental health teams going into prisons felt unable to respond properly to the range of problems they met. Ms Owers said: "Prisons can provide better and more focused care for those who need to be there, but they will only do so effectively if there is sufficient alternative provision for those who should not be there, and effective community support for those who leave prison.

"Unless those gaps are filled, mentally ill people will continue to fall through them and into our overcrowded, increasingly pressurised prisons."

Sean Duggan, of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, said staffing levels in prison mental health care were only one third of what was needed. He said: "We urgently need more investment, especially in primary care within prisons, to close the massive gap."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: "We are working to improve the areas identified in the report."

He added: "Reception screening is currently being reviewed, and we are working to produce guidance this year which will improve the operation of court diversion schemes for mentally ill offenders."