Leading article: A disturbing indictment of our values and priorities

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The Independent Online

Guess which radical campaigning organisation recently said the following: "We continue to imprison too many people with mental health problems... The majority of offenders with lower-level disorders are not dangerous and could be better treated outside the prison system without any risk to the public." The answer? Not some prison reform lobby group, but the British Government. The words are taken from Labour's five-year plan to reduce reoffending.

So why, given such a clear understanding and commitment, was a report issued by MPs yesterday branding the way prison deals with mentally-ill people as "dysfunctional" and claiming that the current overcrowding in jails - with Britain's highest prison population ever - is making things worse for unstable inmates?

The plain fact is that despite all the rhetoric about fighting crime, prison is not a political priority for this government, or for any previous one. Those in prison are, general public opinion holds, the lowest of the low who deserve everything they get. And of these invisible outlaws, the ones who are most kept out of public mind are the mentally ill. To be sure, there is an outcry when a newly released schizophrenic runs amok with a machete or pushes someone under a Tube train. But as soon as the news spotlight is removed, the blind eye is turned.

The facts are shocking. The majority of prisoners have mental health problems. Some 72 per cent of men and 70 per cent of women inside suffer from two or more mental health disorders - compared with just 5 per cent of men and 2 per cent of women in the general population. More seriously, 40 per cent of male and 63 per cent of female prisoners have neurotic or personality disorders, more than three times the national level. And, most gravely, 20 per cent of prisoners have four of the five major mental health disorders; seven per cent of male and 14 per cent of female prisoners have a psychotic disorder - that's 14 and 23 times as many as the rest of us outside. One in five male prisoners were inpatients in a psychiatric hospital before they were jailed.

Things are getting worse. The rocketing number of suicides, attempted suicides and cases of self-harm show there were 17,294 such incidents in 2003. Nearly one-third of women in prison injure themselves, on average five times each. Yet how do we as a society respond? There were only 155 mental health workers inside prisons, as of March 2003. That's the equivalent of one professional for every 322 prisoners with a mental health disorder. Instead huge numbers of men with psychosis (about 28 per cent of the total) spend 23 or more hours a day in their cells. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has estimated that 41 per cent of those in jail should instead be in secure mental health care accommodation.

Many others should be cared for in the community - a system which has earned the derision of the public and the populist press. But the problem has not been that this approach has been tried, and failed. It is that it was tried in such an underfunded way that it was bound to fail. A staggering 96 per cent of mentally disordered prisoners - many of them the most serious offenders - were put back into the community without supported housing, according to one study in 2002. More than three-quarters had been given no appointment with outside carers.

Until there is real political will for change, reports like yesterday's will be issued to no avail. Those in power will wring their hands when questioned, and then continue to do nothing. Prison will remain a dustbin for all society's problems. Only a revolution in our penal policy can make a difference.

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