Prison service accepts ‘urgent need’ to better care for mentally ill inmates

European group’s report highlighted serious failings in how some prionsers are treated

The Irish Prison Service says it accepts the need for urgent improvements in mental health care for inmates following the publication of a highly critical report from a European inspection body.  File image: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

The Irish Prison Service says it accepts the need for urgent improvements in mental health care for inmates following the publication of a highly critical report from a European inspection body. File image: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

 

The Irish Prison Service says it accepts the need for urgent improvements in mental health care for inmates following the publication of a highly critical report from a European inspection body.

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment found serious failings in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, who it said were sometimes left to “languish” in prisons due to a lack of hospital placements.

It detailed the case of one man who it found lying naked on the floor of his cell, with faeces and urine on the floor and walls. The man had not showered for two weeks and was not receiving medical treatment as staff would only open the door to give him food.

Another severely mentally ill man, who was found in a “similarly distressed” state, was kept in an observation cell for 12 weeks before a bed opened up in the Central Mental Hospital.

The committee criticised several aspects of prison policy including the lack of psychiatric beds for inmates, a lack of clear treatment plans and the high levels of homeless people being placed on remand in prison. It also found mentally ill prisoners routinely had to sleep on mattresses on the floor due to overcrowding.

Urgent need

In a statement on Tuesday, the Irish Prison Service said it accepts there is an “urgent need to enhance and improve the level of service provided and the response to this issue must be a broad interdepartmental response”.

It said it had sought a commitment from the Government on a taskforce on mental health being established and welcomed its inclusion in this year’s Programme for Government.

“We are working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Justice and the Department of Health in this regard.”

The service is tasked with “impossible challenges” because its staff are being asked to fulfil roles for which they are not suited, namely the care of people who are severely unwell, said Keith Adams of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

“Most strikingly, they are repeatedly placed in positions where even with the best efforts and intentions, their level of care for prisoners is deficient because the broader criminal justice system has made prison a destination for people who should instead be in a psychiatric facility.”

Catalyst

Mr Adams said the report should serve as a catalyst for reducing prison numbers through the provision of community based services for the homeless and those with mental health and addiction issues.

The prison service welcomed positive aspects of the committee’s report, including on the opening of a modern prison in Cork, an overall reduction in violent incidents and improvements in drug treatment services. It also noted the findings that, for the most part, prisoners said they were treated fairly by staff.

“They felt from talking to staff and prisoners, that there is a genuine concern among staff for those in custody.”

The service said it is continuing on “a journey of transformational change” which is set out in its 2019-2022 strategic plan. This includes a “comprehensive review” of the use of observation cells and health care in prison.