This week’s National Audit Office report into mental health in prisons found there were 40,161 incidents of self-harm and 120 suicides in 2016.
Prisons hold some of the most vulnerable, damaged people in our society and these figures are a tragic indictment of how we treat them.
St Giles Trust works in over 30 prisons in England and Wales in partnership with the prison service. We see first-hand that dedicated prison staff struggle to cope with the levels of need amongst prisoners affected by mental health issues. By their nature, prisons are highly stressful environments and can exacerbate existing mental health conditions or give rise to them.
There are pockets of good practice such as the work we do with prisons to support women with mental health issues upon their release through our Footsteps Project. It ensures they are supported ‘through the gate’ and given intensive help until they are resettled. But we are only funded to provide this service to a small number of female prisons who release vulnerable women returning to London. There is huge need for similar work across the entire prison estate.
But there is another solution – stop the use of frequent, short sentences for people with mental health needs who have often committed low level, petty crimes in order to survive. Typically these are shoplifting, non-payment of fines, minor breaches of licence conditions and affray. Transferring the responsibility of mental health provision to an already over-stretched prison service when a community sentence would be more effective is worsening an already serious problem.
We should never give up on the most vulnerable people in our criminal justice system. Our North London team had been supporting a man with multiple personality disorder and drug misuse issues who was well known to all the authorities – most of whom could not work with him. With patient, persistent support from our team his situation stabilised to the point where employment was a realistic goal for him to pursue. He eventually secured one and – two years later – still successfully holding it down.
This shows there is hope for everyone and that the 120 people who sadly took their lives – no matter how desperate their situations at that time – could have had a positive future ahead of them. We must never give up on helping them.
Rob Owen OBE
Chief Executive, St Giles Trust