Welsh MPs call for new approach to prisons

In a report published this week, the Welsh Affairs Committee highlights serious issues around mentally disordered offenders, including

• Very high levels of mental ill health among the Welsh prison population.
• The incapacity of prison health services to cope with the extent of mental ill health and with ensuring effective links between services provided inside and outside prison.
• High levels of self-harm and suicide in some female prisons, including those that house women and girls from Wales.
• Lack of counselling, support and information is required issues which can particularly affect women such as self-harm or eating disorders.
• Problems caused by the need to hold Welsh women and girls in English prisons due to the lack of places in Wales.
• Dislocation of Welsh prisoners from their local communities exacerbating mental health problems and work against effective continuity of care, especially after release.

“Like so many others, we are left with the impression of a system struggling to cope with high levels of mental ill-health amongst the prison population,” say the report’s authors, the 11-members of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

“Wales now has an opportunity to develop its own distinctive approach to criminal justice which better reflect the needs of Wales and which could serve as a model for developments elsewhere in the UK.”

The report, ‘Welsh Prisoners in the Prison Estate’ – which also calls for the construction of a North Wales prison and an additional prison in the south – makes a number of recommendations around mental health issues.

The report states: “Welsh prisoners need to be held closer to home where family and social links could be better maintained and where specialist mental health services could be more easily provided in a continuum from custody into the community.

“Better links with NHS services in Wales and training for prison staff in mental health provision in the Welsh context would improve services and help promote easier transition from prison to community based services.

“There is more work to be done to ensure the speedy transfer of prisoners to secure mental health facilities – it is unacceptable that prisoners with severe and enduring mental health problems remain in prison for long periods while arrangements are made to transfer them to secure mental health facilities.

“It is intended that certain provisions in the Mental Health Bill, currently before Parliament, may be used to divert some individuals away from prison and into more appropriate secure psychiatric settings.

“We learned from the Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe MP, that the Home Office has had discussions with the Department of Health on this but he cautioned that the Mental Health Bill would not be a panacea for addressing the issue of mental illness in the prison population.”

The report also backs proposals made by Baroness Corston in a report earlier this year on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system that new custodial centres for women be provided in Wales which would be smaller than prisons and more community-based.

“We also recommend the development of a network of locally-based residential women’s centres as proposed in the Corston report, to address the needs of those women serving shorter custodial sentences, those on remand, and those for whom stable accommodation is a condition of sentence,” the report continues.”

The latest figures from the Home Office show that the Welsh prison population is at 2,681 people in a system with an operational capacity of 2,724.

Research conducted by the BMA suggests that around 70% of sentenced prisoners in the UK have one or more mental disorders, while 7% of men and 14% of women prisoners have a psychotic disorders – 14 and 23 times that of the general population.

To read ‘Welsh Prisoners in the Prison Estate’, click here