LETTER : Psychiatric units by default

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The Independent Online
YOUR report on the increasing number of mentally ill people currently in prison ("Prisons full to brim with the mentally ill", 27 August) makes depressing reading. The rapid closure of hospital beds has inevitably put so much pressure on the system that prisons are in danger of becoming psychiatric units by default. The majority of prison staff do not have the training or expertise (or desire) to manage and care for the mentally ill in prison.

An inquiry has just been ordered into the killing in 1994 of Christopher Edwards in Chelmsford Prison by his cellmate, a paranoid schizophrenic with a long history of violence. Richard Linford, who stamped Christopher Edwards to death, admitted manslaughter and has been sent to Rampton Hospital. The case illustrates the danger of remanding the mentally ill to prison for psychiatric assessment, many of whom pose a daily threat to other prisoners, staff or themselves. It also illustrates how scarce secure hospital beds suddenly become available when a tragedy has occurred. Meanwhile, the Home Office and Department of Health continue either to apportion blame elsewhere, or to obfuscate with spurious statistics.

Jayne Zito and Michael Howlett

The Zito Trust

London WC2