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Friday, 25 August, 2000, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
NHS 'failing mentally-ill inmates'
Rates of mental illness are high in prison
By the BBC's social affairs correspondent Kim Catcheside

The number of people who commit suicide in prison will reach record levels this year, according to the head of the prison service.

Martin Nairy believes the number of deaths will increase despite huge efforts to improve the prison service's anti-suicide strategy.

Mental health campaigners say inmates will continue to harm themselves and commit suicide until mental health facilities in jails are improved.

They have called for measures to be put in place to ensure people with severe mental illnesses are not sent to prison.

Government statistics released last year suggest that as many as 70% of Britain's prisoners have some kind of mental health problem.

The situation is even worse in women's jails where 80% of the remand population report mental illness.

Everybody needs to take responsibility for this problem

Mike Newell, governor Durham Prison

But prison governors like Mike Newell, who runs Durham prison, are very sceptical about those kind of figures.

"I'm very wary of estimates in excess of 50%. much of what is reported as mental illness is really situational - the result of being incarcerated."

Nevertheless, he agrees with much of the campaigners' analysis of the problem.

The prison health service has traditionally been independent of the NHS, which can make it difficult to access specialist mental health facilities.

A task force is looking at the possibility of closer co-operation between the two services, something welcomed by Mr Newell.

However, he maintains that progress has been too slow in the past. "Change has been just over the horizon for a long time," he says.

Campaigners and prison governors are agreed on the number of inmates with severe mental illness.

It is estimated that about 5,000 people in Britain's prisons are so ill that they should really be in a civilian mental hospital.

Of the 800 inmates in his prison, Mr Newell reckons up to 50 fall into this category. Several are on the hospital wing at the moment waiting for transfer to specialist units.

However, this can take as long as three months, during which time there condition can often deteriorate.

Fall through the net

There are supposed to be schemes to divert mentally ill people who appear in court into the NHS. These schemes are, however, patchy and many inmates still fall through the net.

Durham Prison
Durham Prison: 50 inmates are mentally ill

"Everybody needs to take responsibility for this problem," says Mr Newell.

"I'm not saying there should be no mentally ill people sent to prison, but when their illness is acute, there should be fast track procedures to get them into mental hospital "

Campaigners and prison governors concur on another important issue.

They believe that the prison service is being made to pick up the bill for the failures of the NHS mental health service.

People with illnesses like schizophrenia aren't being diagnosed early enough they say. Too often their first encounter with a psychiatrist is in a police cell or in jail, after they've committed some crime as a result of their illness.

These are the people that both sides agree, should not be in prison at all.

Kim Catcheside's report on Durham Prison will be broadcast on Radio 4's World Tonight programme at 22.30 BST/ 21:30 GMT on Friday 25 August.

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14 Sep 99 | Medical notes
Prison is bad for your health
30 Dec 99 | Health
Psychopath jail plan slammed
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