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The Scandal of Mental Health in Prisons That Michael Gove Is Failing to Tackle

16/05/2016 16:44 | Updated 16 May 2016

Today's Justice Select Committee report into safety in Britain's prisons reveals a crisis in mental health, with rising levels of self-harm, drug abuse and suicide. A few weeks ago, prison officers at Wormwood Scrubs walked out because they could not guarantee safety for themselves or the prisoners. Yet Justice Secretary Michael Gove seems incapable of action.

Someone is taking their own life every four days in our prisons. The Select Committee report shows that in the 12 months to March 2016 there were 100 self-inflicted deaths in prisons - up from 79 in the previous year. This shocking rise in prisoners' suicide is at the sharp end of a much bigger mental health crisis.

In 2009 Lord Bradley's landmark report into people with mental health problems or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system found that too many offenders with poor mental health were ending up in prison without access to appropriate treatment. Prison was exacerbating their condition. Six years on and self-harm has increased by 21% in the past year alone.

As the prison population has grown, so too has the pressure on the services that provide support to prisoners with mental health problems. New figures reveal that in just five months from April to September last year, almost 343 prisoners who had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, many of whom would have been at serious risk of self-harm, waited more than fourteen days to be transferred to hospital. Prisoners identified at heightened risk of suicide or self-harm are cared for under the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork process (ACCT), yet 60% of prisoners who took their own lives this year did not have an ACCT plan.

Even those identified at risk, do not always get the help they need. Davy Larcombe was being monitored by the ACCT when he took his own life at HMP Lincoln. A month earlier he had been transferred unexpectedly, and without explanation, to HMP Nottingham due to overcrowding on the vulnerable prisoners' wing. Due to the distance, Davy's parents were not able to visit and Davy could not afford to call them. In the run up to his death, Davy self-harmed by cutting twice and both times referred to the lack of contact he had with his family. The jury at the inquest into his death delivered a damning conclusion on the failures in Davy's care.

This case highlights the pressures across the prison system as a whole. Our prisons are in a dire state. The latest annual report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons found outcomes in prisons at their worst level in ten years. Violence is rife - in the 12 months to June 2015 there were 578 serious assaults on staff, a 42% increase on the previous year, and seven prison murders, the highest number recorded since 1978. More than a quarter of prisoners live in overcrowded conditions, with many doubled up in cells made for one person. Drug and alcohol consumption is widespread. Staff shortages are affecting rehabilitation, with reports of inmates not going to support programmes because there aren't enough prison officers to unlock their cells and escort them.

Michael Gove may talk of prisoners as potential assets, of the importance of education in rehabilitation and on placing mental health at the centre of his reforms, but his warm words are not translating into action.

Recently the Youth Justice Board announced that, under pressure from the Government to find in-year savings, it was cutting £9million from the grant it gives to youth offending teams. More opportunities were missed when the Government published its response to Lord Harris' review into self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18-24 year olds. This was an opportunity for Ministers to make significant, lasting changes but the response was underwhelming. They rejected over thirty key recommendations including requiring prisons to record and publish details of the time spent out of the cells for every prisoner; having a specific strategy to cover bullying in prisons; requiring the Minister for Prisons to personally phone the family of the prisoner who has taken their own life to express their condolences on behalf of the State and to promise that a full and thorough investigation will take place, and the creation of a specialist role with responsibility for the wellbeing of young adults in custody.

Ultimately, too many people with a mental health condition become caught up in the criminal justice system. The Government has already announced that they would be extending liaison and diversion services more widely. These services place mental health nurses and other specialist professionals in police stations and courts so that people with mental health problems get the right treatment as quickly as possible. The coverage is far from universal and many services have focused solely on people diagnosed with a severe mental health illness. Her Majesty's Treasury is currently considering whether or not these vital services will be extended further across the country.

To do so would be a good start. But much more needs to be done, including to join up work across central government, local authorities and agencies and support and train staff working both across the prison estate and in the community. And of course urgent measures need to be taken to tackle the immediate issue of prison safety to stem the shocking rise in self-harm and suicides. Today the Justice Select committee recommends that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) together produce an action plan for improving prison safety, addressing the factors underlying the rises in violence, self-harm and suicide. Critical to this is addressing the understaffing of prisons which NOMS has manifestly failed to address. We support this, and urge ministers to do the same.

Luciana Berger is the shadow cabinet minister for mental health and Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree

Jo Stevens is a shadow justice minister and Labour MP for Cardiff Central

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