The mental health and high suicide rates amongst prisoners have featured in the press a lot this week, on both sides of the Atlantic. The tragic story of Dean Saunders was prevalent in the UK press, following an inquest in to his suicide, whilst detained in Chelmsford prison.
Dean had suffered an unexpected yet unexplained serious mental health crisis only a few weeks prior to him taking his own life. He was charged with two counts of attempted murder after an incident at his parents’ house. He had become severely paranoid and had convinced himself that all of his family were against him. He’d picked up a knife from the kitchen and tried to cut his brother’s throat before then attempting to cut his own throat but was stopped by his father who was stabbed in the process of wrestling the knife out of his son’s hands.
Many are questioning if he should have been sent to prison at all. Under normal circumstances, he would have been sent to a secure hospital at the time of his arrest. He had told his family of his intentions to end his life, and prison staff were informed that his was a high suicide risk and that he required 24/7 observation. But a bed wasn’t available so he was taken to prison. However, it was only supposed to be a temporary measure …
However on 4th January 2016, after only eighteen days in Chelmsford prison, Dean took his own life, in between checks made on his cell.
The recent inquest into his death, concluded that ‘financial consideration’ had played a very significant part in the reduction of levels of observations. The jury found that neglect had been a contributing factor to his death. Saunders had never been to prison before and arguably should never have done so.
Only this week, the release of the British Ministry of Justice figures indicated a 32% increase from last year in the number of inmates killing themselves. The figures also showed a 23% increase in prisoners self-harming.
The Huffington Post published an article this week citing a US research paper which indicated that at least 25% of all prisoners in America have a serious mental illness. The article highlighted that many sufferers of mental illnesses end up institutionalised – but the institution is no longer a psychiatric hospital; it is a prison.
Whether it’s due to the influence of the media, or the stigma surrounding mental health, there is an unfounded belief that people who suffer from mental health problems are inherently dangerous; that they need to be locked up for everyone’s safety. But as you may have guessed, that belief is nonsense.
Although the case of Dean Saunders is related to a violent attack, the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness are in no way violent. In fact, many people suffering from severe mental health problems are more likely to become a victim of violent crime themselves. In many cases, as outlined by the British Ministry of Justice figures, a person who suffers with a mental health condition is more of a danger to themselves than they ever would be to the general public, with some estimates suggesting that 90% of UK suicides are committed by people who are already experiencing mental distress. I acknowledge that some people can commit crime and be violent when they are unwell, but of course this is not the case for the majority of sufferers.
The Shaw Mind Foundation has produced a free guide on ‘Crime and mental health’, which highlights some statistics relating to crime committed by those who are mentally unwell, and looks at the startling statistics relating to the way they are victimised. The guide also considers the prison system and its potential impact on mental health problems.