Irish Penal Reform Trust

Under-resourced forensic mental health system “fundamentally breaches human rights”

15th November 2021

Irish Penal Reform Trust calls for immediate action on the recommendations in a new Mental Health Commission report

Ireland is failing people with mental illness and allowing prison to be used to fill gaps in wider mental health services. People in the criminal justice system do not have the same access to and quality of mental health care as the general population, and the practice of locking people with severe mental illness in isolation units in prison while they await appropriate care “fundamentally breaches their human rights”. In response, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is calling for a fundamental shift in how we treat people with mental illness who come in contact with the criminal justice system, with diversion available at all points.

IPRT was responding to a new report by the Mental Health Commission (MHC), ‘Access to Mental Health Services for People in the Criminal Justice System’ published today (15.11.2021). IPRT welcomes the report as a comprehensive overview of points of early intervention, prevention and diversion, with human rights central to its analysis. However, many of the findings relate to issues that have been prevalent in the justice system for many years, with little action.

IPRT endorses the findings and recommendations of the Mental Health Commission and calls on the Minister for Health and the Minister for Justice to commit to resourcing the implementation of the recommendations in full.

Responding to the report, IPRT Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide commented:

“The State is failing people made vulnerable through mental illness and disabilities and is allowing the prison system to be used to fill gaps in our health services. The scale of unmet mental health need in prisons is vast and the responses are completely inadequate. People who urgently require hospital care are instead being held in isolation in an environment that exacerbates trauma and distress and entrenches mental health issues. The ‘unethical’ lack of access to urgent high-secure care criticised in this report cannot be allowed to continue.

“This report is the latest in a line of reports drawing attention to the many gaps in treatment in an under-resourced system. We know that people in prison are spending longer in their cells, have high self-harm rates, and violence reported in prison is often linked with untreated mental illness. We also know that good initiatives, such as the Prison In-reach Court Liaison Service (PICLS) are under-resourced.

“Any focus on improving mental healthcare in the criminal justice system must begin keeping people out of the system in the first place. This can prevent causing further trauma and may even save lives. However, this will require a fundamental shift in our approach to mental health at all points of contact with the criminal justice system.”

“It is a damning indictment on society that those at their lowest ebb, who have committed less serious offences linked to their mental illness, who could be safely managed in general psychiatric healthcare settings, are instead forced to come before the Courts and enter the justice system due to a lack of pre-arrest diversion and alternatives.”


In response to the publication of the Mental Health Commission report, IPRT is calling for:

  • Implementation of the recommendations in the MHC report;
  • Publication by end 2021 of the implementation plan of the High Level Task Force on the mental health and addiction challenges of persons coming in contact with the justice system;
  • Removal of mental health catchment area restrictions, which mean people who are homeless cannot access certain services;
  • Significant investment in trauma-informed mental health services for women;
  • Publication of data on the number of people in prison awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital, the lengths of time in prison awaiting transfer, and the conditions they are held in while awaiting transfer.


In a report on its most recent visit to Ireland, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture also criticised mental health catchment areas restrictions. Such restrictions can result in some of the most vulnerable people in the State being left to languish in prison because the only option available to them for treatment is in the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) which is constantly running at capacity with long waiting lists. Then, following release, they face barriers to accessing community follow-up. This can perpetuate a cycle of reoffending and imprisonment linked with untreated illness, addictions and homelessness.


For all media enquiries or additional comment, contact Pamela: +353 (0) 86 043 3060 or communications@iprt.ie


NOTES TO EDITOR

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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