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Crime in Mind General Blog

By Frances McKenzie, Nov 17 2017 08:35AM

Why doesn’t TV highlight our Prison Communities Mental Health issues?

A few days ago I watched a TV programme presented by Ross Kemp (ITV 2nd November 2017). He immerses himself in prison life at HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow. This Victorian prison houses 1250 prisoners and has a notorious reputation for being a very tough place to be.

The programme itself was much more sensitively handled than I expected. My perception was that someone like Mr Kemp, with a reputation of being a “hard man”, would be condemning of all prisoners – however I felt he genuinely wasn’t. Actually, he raised questions about prison life that we should all be asking ourselves.

Do prisons really work?

What are they for – punishment or rehabilitation?

Is this the most cost-effective method of preventing crime?

Although tackling levels of violence and the drug culture – both rife within all prison communities – were discussed, mental health was nowhere mentioned. This is stunning. At any one time half to three-quarters of the prison population are suffering from mental health problems. Many of them are actually in prison because of their ill health and would really be better placed in a hospital or community environment where they can be treated correctly.

Each prisoner on entry to the prison is asked if he or she has “suicidal thoughts”, although Mr Kemp said he didn’t (clearly, he knew he was leaving the same day) – I wonder just how many prisoners answer this question affirmatively and if they do – what is the response? Do they get seen by a psychiatrist? Or just isolated in a cell where they can be watched more closely. The real question here is though – how many of them would deny feeling like this when they really do? Again, a mental health question that the programme failed to explore. Do we know how to get accurate and useful information in such circumstances?

The programme covered a prisoner who had served his sentence but had also served an additional 6 years because of his in-prison drug addiction! He explained how his recreational drug use of pre-prison days had become a heroin addiction - because regular drug tests are done in prisons and heroin is less likely to be detected during a drug test than cannabis. My question would be where is the research which has evaluated the effectiveness of current drug management in prisons? If there is evidence of what this man described, why are policies not following the evidence base? Surely society would be better serving itself and him by having him in a drug rehabilitation programme? Is there no research evidence of the effectiveness of such programmes in these circumstances? Maybe this is naivety on my part as a non-clinician but I do represent the ordinary general public and cannot understand why we are spending so much keeping people such as this in prison.

The other area that was highlighted was the “revolving door” prisoners. Those who are sentenced to short term prison stays and, once released, re-offend to be sent back to prison again very quickly. Even Mr Kemp questioned the validity of sending these people to prison! The prison officer admitted that there is nothing they can do for these people in the short time they are there and therefore they have no hope of being re-habilitated to return to society as a reformed character. Quite often these people lose their jobs, homes and any form of gaining income. How is this helping society? How, if someone is suffering from a mental health problem is this going to get them the correct treatment? I want a lot more answers – we all should.

If you want to view the programme it is available on

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