IWOC: Mental Health & Incarceration
Updated: Feb 3, 2021
IWOC Ireland series of writings from prisoners continues with this from a fellow prisoners reflecting mental health and the prison system during Disability Awareness Month.
Remember, if you are a prisoner or a love one and you would like to raise an issue then please get in touch:
Although we are somewhat sheltered and removed from much of the mayhem that is going on outside, the lockdown within a lockdown is creating its own problems in prison.
One of the biggest problems is that people with mental health difficulties are suffering the most, and I have to say as well that I am noticing more and more people who don't usually suffer from them starting to now, and I am sure you can imagine that the help they can get is virtually non-existent.
We all know mental health disabilities and problems are endemic within the prison environment, ranging anywhere from depression and anxiety, ADHD, through to more florid disabilities such as schizophrenia and psychosis. It is a well established fact that people who have mental health problems are far more likely to partake in risk-taking behaviours such as drinking alcohol excessively or drug misuse, and to commit a criminal offence (although one thing that the judicial system seems to overlook is the amount of criminal responsibility people actually have).
But personally I believe that this is on reflection a much wider problem in society, especially with people from a lower socio-economic background, where most of the prison population comes from unfortunately. It is also a reflection, and a direct result of the lack of community services that are available.
What is evident to me is that the prison is not equipped to manage the problem. It fails to acknowledge or empathise with the problem on a daily basis, primarily because it is trying to marry mental health disabilities with punishment and discipline, which is nothing short of barbaric and archaic in its very concept. People do not choose to suffer from mental health problems much in the same way someone does not choose to suffer from cancer. There is no consideration given to the often harrowing, traumatic experiences that underpin many of these conditions.
The lack of understanding and empathy extends beyond the prison into the courts and wider judicial system. Rudolf Rocker writes: “Power operates only destructively, bent always on forcing every manifestation of life into the straight jacket of its laws” which is apt because such a definitive lack of empathy or compassion seems only to classify these disabilities as some form of social deviance, much as it has done throughout history, with say, homosexuality for instance.
While there is a mental health service within the prison, it is overwhelmingly inadequate, and as a result most of the people who need it can’t access it, and instead they are left in the perpetual cycle of being in and out of prison because of their disabilities.
As a direct result of this lack of services, support or intervention, prisoners are still suffering from the same problems while they are in custody – the same symptoms that played their part in getting them there. Rather than showing any semblance of empathy, prison officers and the system choose to see this as disorderly behaviour, and opt to punish people for this by locking them behind a door, depriving them of “privileges” such as being able to associate with other people or have a television, or even remove them from the general population and put them into solitary confinement in the CSO, to maintain “good order and discipline”.
It is established practice that if someone becomes frustrated, or even aggressive because of a mental health problem that ‘verbal de-escalation’ techniques are used - “to try and talk them down”, which is a more humane approach. Unsurprisingly this does not happen in prison. During such event, prison officers are often aggressive, using physical force and brutality in an attempt to overpower and subdue, rather than trying to reassure or calm the person. More troubling, it is commonplace that if someone is trying to harm themselves and are asking for help, that rather than trying to get them to stop, they are actually encouraged.
Staff from the healthcare team are aware of this, and on occasion have been physically present while it was happening and have failed to intervene, instead choosing to turn a blind eye.
Prison is an institution, much in the same way an acute hospital, a care home or a mental health facility is, and so the Health Trusts have a duty of care to ensure appropriate care is provided, and more importantly to highlight, investigate and expose failures and to implement safeguarding procedures, especially when it involves vulnerable people.
People with mental health disabilities fall safely under this umbrella term. But again, they fail to act. And, while albeit they are not responsible for perpetrating such atrocities, to stand by and do nothing make them just as culpable.
I have personally raised my concerns both locally and within the prison, and directly with the Trust, but they have failed to even acknowledge my complaints.
Mistreatment of people with mental health disabilities is a stain on our history, but is still continuing today, as we have seen following an investigation into Muckamore Abbey Hospital. Following this, there was public disgust and outcry. But because we are in prison, both the prison service and healthcare systems are able to hide behind a lack of accountability and transparency. We do not have the luxury of covert investigations and hidden cameras. Unless there is scrutiny, and a demand into the same crisis that many have been in before them - one where there is only on catastrophic escape.
As I am sure you can tell, this is something I am quite passionate about, and for me it is a truly heartbreaking situation. I have suffered from mental health problems since I was a child, and I have experienced many of these problems myself while I have been in prison, and I can tell you personally that when everything gets on top of me, it is one of the loneliest, darkest and scariest place to be. For me prison seems to make each of these elements that little bit worse.
If it were not for a handful of other prisoners who were there to support me I would not be sitting here today writing this, and for me that is one of the most poignant aspects. That it is the people with the “broken moral compass” that had shown me compassion, understanding and care than the so-called ‘guardians of morality’.