Prisoners with mental health issues in ‘unsuitable’ conditions, says reform group

Government task force to look at how criminal justice system deals with vulnerable

The Government is seeking a plan on improvements in how the criminal justice system deals with people with mental health and addiction issues by the end of the year.

The Department of Justice has convened a high-level task force, led by former Labour Party minister of State Kathleen Lynch, to examine how people with mental health and addiction are treated within the criminal justice system, and has asked for it to report before the end of 2021.

It is being asked to look at how mental health needs are met in prison, as well as how additional treatments are provided and primary care support is made available on release “in order to ensure improved outcomes for individuals and for society”, the Department of Justice said in a statement.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that a certain cohort of people are “too ill to be in prison, as they require urgent treatment”.

“As a society that values human dignity, respect and equality, I am clear that we need to do better for people who are in these circumstances. We need to put in place properly resourced, appropriately located systems of care for these most vulnerable people, and the establishment of this taskforce is an important step to progressing this,” she said in a statement.

Minor offence

It follows two reports undertaken by a cross-departmental group in 2016 and 2018. The first report found that the Garda should implement a “diversion policy” when it comes into contact with adults with mental illness who may have committed a minor offence, and that the HSE and the Irish Prison Service make in-reach and court liaison services available to prisoners on remand, as well as a number of legislative changes.

The second report found that a small but significant percentage of those under probation service supervision have “significant mental health issues” and there is a higher prevalence of mental illness, mental disorder and disturbance in that population than in the wider public.

It said that clear protocols should be established on accessing community mental health services and possible hospital admissions where the level of clinical need warrants such an admission.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) and Mental Health Reform welcomed the establishment of a taskforce but said it must be met with staffing, resources and wide consultation.

‘Distress’

“Too many people with disabilities, mental illness and in psychiatric distress are held for long periods in completely unsuitable conditions in prison,” IPRT executive director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said.

The taskforce will include representatives from the HSE, the Central Mental Hospital, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, the Garda and relevant Government departments, as well as other stakeholders.

Ms McEntee said she had asked, alongside Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and Minister of State Frankie Feighan, for a high-level implementation plan to be delivered by the end of the year. She said this is an "ambitious timeframe but we are committed to developing a system that provides comprehensive and co-ordinated mental health support for those who need it".

The taskforce will assess how to implement the recommendations from the previous reports.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times