Mental health among prisoners must be addressed, says Flanagan

Psychiatrists and psychologists needed on prison staffs, Minister says

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan: ‘It’s important that as well as education and healthcare that we have a more comprehensive mental health service within our prison system.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan: ‘It’s important that as well as education and healthcare that we have a more comprehensive mental health service within our prison system.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

Ireland can do “much more” to address the problem of severely mentally ill people being kept in prison, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said.

The Minister said he is “very concerned at mental health issues” within the country’s 12 prisons and that the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Health Service Executive need to do more to help inmates with serious mental illness.

The Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, the country’s only forensic mental health facility, is constantly at full capacity and there is usually a lengthy list of severely mentally ill prisoners waiting on admission from Dublin’s Cloverhill Prison.

These prisoners often have to sleep on the floor due overcrowding in the prison’s D2 wing which houses vulnerable inmates.

A series of reports compiled by prison chaplains in recent years and released to The Irish Times were strongly critical of the authorities’ approach to the issue.

The Cloverhill chaplain called the practice of locking up severely mentally ill prisoners “harrowing”.

Speaking at a meeting of EU justice ministers in Helsinki, Finland, Mr Flanagan said more work was needed including providing for more psychiatrists and psychologists on prison staffs. He also said judges need more options when it comes to sentencing those with mental health issues, including the option to send them for a “mental health referral” as an alternative to prison. “Those options are narrowed when we don’t have the beds available, when we don’t have the facilities.” He said he was working with Minister of State at the Department of Health Jim Daly to address the issue.

Victorian-era facility

Mr Flanagan pointed to some improvements which are already taking place, including the opening of a modern facility in north Dublin next year to replace the Victorian-era Central Mental Hospital, and the opening of a violent offender unit in the Midlands Prison to provide intensive treatment to particularly dangerous inmates in a secure setting.

“Bearing in mind that every prisoner that enters the prison system will be released, it’s important that as well as education and healthcare that we have a more comprehensive mental health service within our prison system.”

In this regard, Ireland will look more to the approach of Nordic countries rather than the more punitive approaches adopted in the US and UK, he said.

On the subject of drug law, Mr Flanagan said he was not in favour of decriminalising possession of drugs for personal use.

It is understood a committee established last year to examine drug strategy reform is to recommend a liberalised, health-led approach to possession cases but will stop short of recommending full-blown decriminalisation.

The Minister said the committee’s report has been completed and will go to Government shortly. “I wouldn’t be in favour of decriminalisation of drugs, however I do acknowledge that perhaps we need to take a closer look at doing more in terms of a health-led response.”

In response to the treatment of sexual assault complaints during criminal trials, Mr Flanagan said he hopes a report by barrister and academic Tom O’Malley examining ways of improving the system will be ready within “a couple of months”.

The report was originally expected by March but has been delayed due to a larger-than-expected number of submissions from interested parties.

A submission by the Bar Council was received just this week.

“I’m very keen to ensure that women in particular who suffer either sexual assault or domestic violence, find that our court system is responding in a way that’s appropriate,” Mr Flanagan said.

Sex crime reporting

He said he is particularly interested in making the pre-trial process easier for complainants. “I acknowledge an increase in the reporting of sexual crimes. I believe it’s absolutely essential that the courts respond in a way that’s protective of vulnerable witnesses and complainants.”

The increase in the number of children committing sexual offences, including possession of child pornography, is also a concern, the Minister said. He said the Government is looking at the issue in particular from an online safety point of view and is taking a “whole-of-government approach” including an ongoing review of measures to protect children from inappropriate content online.

There is also a need for social media and tech companies “to perhaps do more in terms of ensuring that unacceptable material is not transmitted in the way it currently is”.

He said he is continuing to look, at the request of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, at the viability of plans being enacted in the UK to force websites to verify the age of users before allowing them access to pornographic material.

Clock proposal

Mr Flanagan spent some of his time in Helsinki trying to “build an alliance” of countries opposed to European Commission proposals to eliminate daylight savings time in the EU.

This week, Mr Flanagan announced the Government would oppose the plan following a public consultation showing most people were opposed to time zone differences emerging post-Brexit between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

He said he was hopeful of gaining support from the Nordic countries, as well as Portugal and Denmark in opposing the plan. He has also been speaking about the matter with his UK counterpart, Sajid Javid. “I say strongly that this is far from a done deal,” he said of the proposals.