Mental health, Labour and the crisis in criminal justice and jails | Letters

Self-harm has escalated at the same time as prison healthcare funding being cut, writes Prof Pamela Taylor; and Labour needs to face up to its often-woeful past in contributing to the current crisis, says Prof Joe Sim

As a psychiatrist working in prisons, I can say confidently that Charles Falconer’s damning criticism of the criminal justice system (The threat facing us all – justice only for the very rich, 7 February) is no overstatement.

There was one striking omission, however, and that was mental health. Suicides – indeed all deaths – in prisons have reached their highest peak since records began in 1978. According to Inquest, already this year six people have taken their own lives in prisons. Self-harm has also escalated at the same time as prison healthcare funding being cut.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists promotes the management of offenders with mental disorders outside prison whenever it is safe to do so. Use of the mental health treatment requirement (MHTR) with a community sentence has, however, fallen to its lowest point in the last decade.

MHTRs have huge potential to reduce prison populations, and to prevent vulnerable people from ending up in conditions that often make them worse and more likely to reoffend. As Falconer says, however, the probation service has been almost as damaged by cuts as the prisons. This route also seems blocked for the moment.

Parliament has committed to reducing the prison population, and to improving the sorry state of the criminal justice system. It is in everyone’s interests that this becomes a priority.
Professor Pamela Taylor
Chair of the forensic faculty, Royal College of Psychiatrists

• Charles Falconer’s comments on the crisis in criminal justice were long on words and short on history. He criticises the Thatcher government’s role in the Strangeways disturbance. But its roots go further back to the prison crisis under the Labour government in the late 1970s, whose abject failure to deal with it, and confront the lack of accountability in the system were key issues on the road to Strangeways.

Clearly, there is an issue about the devastating impact of the cuts on the ability of the poor to defend themselves in civil and criminal cases. But the cuts have not caused the crisis.

When they were well-funded, and when staff numbers were high, prisons were still in crisis under Labour, who ignored the often negative experiences of those inside and failed to implement recommendations contained in the Social Exclusion report and the Corston report, both radical documents. He is correct to point to the iniquity of the IPP system but fails to indicate that it was introduced under a Labour government.

Labour needs to face up to its often-woeful past in contributing to the current crisis if it is to offer something positive beyond glib soundbites like “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.
Professor Joe Sim
School of Humanities and Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University

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