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Mental Health: Prisons

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2016

A key aspect of our prison reform programme will be to address offender mental health and improve outcomes for prisoners. We are introducing co-commissioning, which will make sure that governors are focused on and accountable for those outcomes, alongside health commissioners. I know the Secretary of State has discussed the matter with the Health Secretary and it is a high priority for both of them.

Last year, I spent more than a month in a small room, unable to leave. I lost track of where I was. I became tearful over the slightest of issues. I felt that I could not breathe. I was not incarcerated in prison; I was in hospital following a physical illness, but the experience made me reflect on how easy it is to develop a mental health issue when confined in a small space and lacking orientation. With that in mind, what assessment has the Department made of people developing mental problems in prison, rather than going in with such problems, and what can be done to reduce that?

I am glad to see my hon. Friend looking so well, following such a significant illness.

Prisoners are entitled to the same levels of care as those living in the community, but there are specific measures in place for their care. All prisoners have a health assessment on arrival, all prison officers receive training to help them to recognise mental health issues, and all prisons have on-site primary healthcare teams who can provide mental health care, refer to counselling, or refer for a further psychiatric assessment for serious mental illness.

A recent report by the prisons and probation ombudsman found that 70% of those who committed suicide had a mental health issue. What steps will the Government take specifically to tackle this problem?

Every death in custody is a tragedy. We are committed to reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths. We have reviewed the case assessment care in custody and teamwork process for prisoners assessed as being at risk and we are piloting revised safer custody training in response. All prison officers, both new and experienced, receive training to help offenders with mental health issues.

Statistics show that 50% of those who are in prison suffer from personality disorders. Does the Minister agree that it is important to assess such issues when people enter the criminal justice system—even at the stage of the custody suite—rather than after their incarceration?

Of course the initial assessment is important, as is who does that assessment. In addition to our work on that, the care following the assessment and ongoing care, as well as the observation of prisoners, are being closely looked at.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) asked the Secretary of State when she had last visited a prison’s mental health service. Suicide in prisons is at a 25-year high. It is utterly disgusting that neither the Health Secretary nor the Secretary of State for Justice has visited prisons to see what is going on. What is happening?

As I have said, each of those suicides is a tragedy. The Government are fully aware of that, and I am aware that the Secretary of State for Health will be visiting a prison. I was at Peterborough prison last week discussing mental health provision there, and I visited the mother and baby unit at the same time. I am under no illusions about the challenges involved in addressing the problem. We are fully aware of the problem and I intend to make further statements on the subject because the mental health of prisoners is such a key problem.

However important it is to improve and enhance mental health care in our prisons, little will be achieved without continuity of care once prisoners leave prison. What is the Department doing, with the health service, to ensure that continuity of care is provided for prisoners from day one when they leave prison?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question which, as ever, is a wise one. Yes, continuity of care before, during and after prison is key, not just for the mental health of prisoners, but for their physical health too. We have ongoing discussions with the Department of Health on the matter, and my intention is to make the continuity of records and the continuity of care as a consequence much better in the future.

Does the Minister accept that many prisoners with mental health issues would be better served and facilitated outside the prison regime? If so, what alternatives are being looked at?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right. However, prison can be an opportunity to address mental health problems that have not previously been diagnosed and properly treated, so being in prison may be an opportunity for someone to receive proper care, which is ultimately what I am about.