The saying goes that people in prison are mad, bad or sad. There is some truth in this. When I started work as a barrister I often visited prisons to meet defendants and some were just plain bad. But, I was struck by how many people suffered from mental ill-health, particularly after “care in the community” came in. People who had been in the sanctuary of institutions were finding it difficult to cope in a non institutional world. The other shocking aspect was how many prisoners were illiterate. The average reading age in prison is 11 years. That’s not an excuse. Terrible crimes call for tough sentences and the public need protection from such criminals, but there are vulnerable people in prison who need help to rehabilitate and it is all our interests to help them.
The Centre for Social Justice has recently published a strategy for reforming prisons and rehabilitating prisoners, called “Locked Up Potential”. It advocates policies such as giving prison governors similar budgetary freedoms to NHS Foundation Trusts and shifting the focus of the criminal offender system towards rehabilitation. Iain Duncan Smith is right to focus on this, but the part which caught my eye was the section on Improving Mental Health Care. The report recommends that much greater attention and recognition should be paid to prisoners with mental health disorders.
When I was the Party’s spokesman on mental health I went with Liam Fox to Wandsworth Prison to meet staff and prisoners on the Hospital Wing and I was convinced that good treatment for mental illness is vital in prisons. This latest report calls for early assessment of those with mental conditions and better training of prison staff to ensure “early diversion of many mentally unwell prisoners away from prison to more appropriate facilities”. Ultimately it comes down to compassion. People who suffer from mental illness are sufferers foremost and a caring, compassionate society should look after them, protect them. Some people need the sanctuary of a hospital. Some need treatment. Today that just doesn’t always happen. This report suggests a new approach under the Conservatives and I welcome that.