If you've ever thought that prison is the place for mentally ill criminals, you need to hear about the tragic life of Vishnu Wood

I’m not a vindictive person by nature. But when I attended Vishnu’s funeral after mentoring him through so many highs and lows, I wanted the judges who had sent him to Wormwood Scrubs to be there

Peter Stanford
Thursday 23 February 2017 11:48
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Falling budgets mean more vulnerable young men and women, like Vishnu, will die needlessly
Falling budgets mean more vulnerable young men and women, like Vishnu, will die needlessly

Vishnu Wood spoke Japanese. Often he would talk persuasively about staging a production of his own modern English translation of a classical Japanese Noh play. Tall, lanky and charismatic, of Ghanaian, Nigerian and English heritage, he was just as articulate when it came to film, politics, journalism or history, in which he had graduated from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 2014.

Vishnu’s magnetism came, in part at least, from the fact that he was always brimming over with ideas and plans and schemes. To those who encountered him briefly, this high-octane confidence seemed boundless and they must have concluded that his future success was assured.

One well-known film producer to whom he introduced himself in a London restaurant remembers that not only did he have the chutzpah to sit down at her table after overhearing her talk about her work to a lunch companion, but he then proceeded (with her blessing) to finish off her half-eaten main course, and ask the waiter to bring more tartar sauce, while he outlined a script of his own.

Those close to him, however, have a different reading of that story. The Vishnu at that restaurant table was manic. What ultimately prevented him bringing any of his ideas to fruition, as I learned over four years acting as his volunteer mentor through the charity the Longford Trust, was bipolar disorder, diagnosed in his early 20s when he was a student.

His lows would lay him very low indeed, while his highs, as well as occasionally making him an irresistible lunch guest, could and did get him into trouble with the law. When he was low, there would be long gaps, messages unanswered, before he finally got back in touch. After the last silence, though, it was his older brother, Yannick, who called me. Vishnu was dead. He had taken his own life.

With hindsight it was predictable. Mental health is widely acknowledged as one of the main drivers behind current soaring levels of suicide among young men between 20 and 49, and the record numbers of suicides in our prisons, where in 2016, 119 inmates killed themselves while behind bars. But the news, and loss of so much potential that it represented, hit me with a physical force. Aged 28, Vishnu had committed suicide in his bedroom at home in west London two days before he was due to appear in the Crown Court on assault charges, the result of another unhappy episode when he was manic.

The reason I was mentoring Vishnu was that he had already done time. That’s the way with all those who receive one of the 20 scholarships the Longford Trust awards ex-prisoners each year to continue their rehabilitation by studying for a degree at university. And mental health issues are also disproportionately common in our overcrowded, under-resourced prisons.

Ministry of Justice figures supplied by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody show that 46 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men in prison have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, compared with 6 per cent of the general population. More than a quarter of women behind bars, and 16 per cent of men, report on admission that they have been receiving treatment for their mental health in the previous 12 months. Some 62 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women prisoners have been diagnosed with a personality disorder.

It is often why they offend in the first place. Over the last six years of his life, Vishnu had 13 convictions for 30 separate offences. All happened when he was manic, mostly low-level episodes of shoplifting, or anti-social behaviour, but they could escalate into actual bodily harm, especially when the police got involved.

“He was the sweetest, nicest, most passionate, most caring guy when illness was not ruling his life,” says his bereaved long-time partner, Timothy Morley. When it was and he was at his worst, he could lash out, even attacking those closest to him.

Timothy forgave Vishnu because he understood where it came from. Our courts, if anything, knew more than his partner about the severity of Vishnu’s bipolar disorder because they had his medical reports in front of them. But too often they showed no inclination at all to make any allowances for it in punishing his criminal behaviour.

Vishnu had already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before his first spell in prison. He was held on remand in 2010-2011 after getting caught up in the London riots against the introduction of student tuition fees. Medical reports on his condition were prepared at that time and made available to the courts.

He had been charged with setting fire to a bench in Parliament Square. “He was caught on camera, but the other rioters around him were wearing hoodies and covering their faces,” recalls Julia Furley, the barrister who defended him. “Vishnu was dressed in a tweed jacket, a cravat and dogtooth plus-fours, as if he was going hunting. He didn’t care about disguising himself because, at the time, he was manic.”

The court on that occasion accepted that defence. Vishnu was mentally ill, not a criminal, it decided.

BBC Panorama uncover 'chaos' in prison system

That is not to suggest Vishnu deserved a lifetime of “get out of jail free” cards because of his condition. Just after his suicide, the case of academic Dr Jeroen Ensink made headlines. He had been stabbed to death near his north London home as he posted letters announcing the birth of his daughter. His killer had a history of mental illness and six days before the crime had been in court for another knife attack before charges were dropped. If he had been remanded into custody, a little girl would still have her father.

Courts undeniably face difficult decisions every day when dealing with mentally ill defendants. As Vishnu’s brother Yannick now reflects: “It got increasingly hard to work out where Vishnu stopped and the bipolar began. They were so mixed up together.” But the degree of difficulty cannot absolve those making the decisions on custody or care.

Vishnu was frank at our first meeting that he had bipolar disorder. And he was not above deploying it as a weapon to his advantage. He had, for example, missed his Longford scholarship interview three times, causing the offer to be withdrawn. He had replied with possibly the rudest letter the charity ever received, but so articulate in its rudeness that he was given one more chance to attend. It’s not a technique to be recommended, but there was just something about Vishnu that enabled him to pull it off.

He certainly didn’t help himself by poor management of his medication – especially after his devoted mother, Mary, died in 2014. He drank too much, even though he knew the combination of alcohol and his prescription drugs could have disastrous consequences. He undeniably bore some responsibility for what happened.

Yet what his mental illness did mean was that Vishnu should, on his appearances in court, have come to the attention of Liaison and Diversion Services. These were first introduced following a government-commissioned 2009 report on offenders with mental health problems by former Home Office minister, Lord Bradley and have subsequently proven their worth in intervening when vulnerable individuals such as Vishnu end up in police stations, or magistrates and crown courts, so that their mental health issues are recognised and taken into account in their treatment and sentencing.

In 2014 the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, publicly backed them, and promised to roll them out across the country. Her words are there on the record. And, indeed, following a persuasive campaign headed by the Prison Reform Trust and the Women’s Institutes, the government last summer came up with an extra £12m, but it is a fraction of what is needed.

As Prime Minister, Theresa May has been talking a good talk on mental health of late, but her record makes her words ring hollow. Currently, Liaison and Diversion Services still only cover about half of all courts and police custody suites in the country. They were not there on the numerous occasions when Vishnu needed them.

And even if they were properly funded as pledged, they can only be effective if there are places other than prison for those like Vishnu to go. Too often there just aren’t. Beds in secure mental units are at a premium. Instead of investing in building more, we currently prefer – in the name of austerity – to spend £44,000 per head per year sending them to prisons that are hopelessly ill-equipped to do anything other than make existing mental health issues worse, and therefore reoffending more likely. If, that is, the individual in question manages to stay alive behind bars.

It is not just about resources, however. There seems to be an enduring, if mistaken, notion that custody “works” (to paraphrase Michael Howard’s now infamous remark when Home Secretary about the fabled effectiveness of prisons, despite a reoffending rate by inmates that is at or over 50 per cent) better than care when it comes to offenders who have mental health problems. So even where less severe options do currently exist – such as the Mental Health Treatment Requirement (MHTR), one of 12 community orders available to magistrates instead of imposing a custodial sentence – they are little used. Last November, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs heard that MHTR makes up just 0.1 per cent of all court orders issued.

All of this Vishnu found out to his cost. I was working with him on his planned blog site when, in 2015, a West London magistrates court sent him to Wormwood Scrubs for six weeks for causing criminal damage to his partner’s flat when manic.

Timothy wouldn’t open the front door. Vishnu threw an old tennis racket through the window. A neighbour called the police and Vishnu scarpered. Despite Timothy explaining his mental health problems, the officers pursued and arrested him. He assaulted them in the process.

Why, Timothy continues to ask, had the officers not been able to access the Police National Computer on the spot via their radios, read Vishnu’s history, and call for appropriate back-up before tackling him?

Various versions of police “triage” projects have been and are being trialled around the country, sometimes in dealing with young offenders with mental health issues, and on occasion including a trained mental health nurse going out on calls with patrol officers. But despite encouraging results, they haven’t been taken further, or funded more widely, and remain all too rare.

When he appeared before the magistrates, Vishnu was sufficiently versed in court matters to realise it was going badly. “In a nutshell,” his barrister Julia Furley says, “in cases such as his the Crown Court tends to be more open to alternative sentencing options, probably driven by more time, resources and expertise, whereas magistrates tend to take the ‘easy’ option and impose short sentences.”

During a toilet break, Vishnu absconded, headed straight for the local Saint Charles Hospital, and had himself sectioned. He became his own one-man DIY Liaison and Diversion Service.

The choice he made was as rational as anything a court could offer. He received treatment for several months that stabilised his bipolar. A home care plan was put in place, but first there was the obstacle of returning to court for judgement. There, his psychiatric consultant’s eloquent plea to the magistrates counted for little against the insult Vishnu had paid the court by absconding. He was jailed.

During those weeks in a prison that is particularly notorious in the system for its chaotic regime and 23-hour-a-day lockdown, all the progress made in Saint Charles’ Hospital was lost. Even Vishnu’s battle-worn probation officer, when I spoke to her, was surprised at the magistrates’ callousness.

I am not, by nature, vindictive, but I wanted them to be there at Vishnu’s funeral, in his mother’s local Catholic church, so that they might understand the consequences of their decision. Vishnu’s final decline can be dated to that spell in the Scrubs.

He would rather die than go back inside, he told his brother, when another court appearance loomed after a manic episode. “I look at my life and what I could have had, but instead I keep fucking it up again and again.” Most of the time he would blame others, Yannick recalls now, “but sometimes he had insight”.

To the rest of the world, Vishnu made light of his prison experiences. “If he had to talk about them, he’d make them into another chapter in the colourful life of Vishnu,” says Timothy, “just like something he’d later put in his memoirs.”

Yannick agrees. “His bravado was his downfall. He hoodwinked people. He was much more vulnerable than they knew. Than even he knew.”

We have known for decades that, when mental health collides with the police and the courts, little results that is in anyway beneficial – to the individual, to the victims, or to society. Promising initiative after promising initiative all offer hope briefly, but are then starved of resources. The charity Mind reported earlier this year that since 2010, budgets have in fact fallen by 8.25 per cent, or £600m. That means quite simply that more vulnerable young men and women like Vishnu will die needlessly, their potential wasted, and their futures lost.

Peter Stanford is director of the Longford Trust

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