A wake-up call on mental health within the criminal justice system

23/11/2021

Our Associate Director for Criminal Justice & Mental Health Navigation Services, Jonathan Munro, talks us through a recent report which reviewed the criminal justice system for those of us who experience mental health conditions.

Recently, the Chief Inspectors for all aspects of the criminal justice system published a joint report which reviewed the criminal justice journey for people experiencing mental health conditions. Sadly, none of the content of this comprehensive report was surprising to those of us who work directly with people severely affected by mental illness in contact with the criminal justice system.

The thematic report found that in the twelve years since the landmark Bradley Report, which found systemic failures in addressing the mental health needs of people subject to the criminal justice system, progress has at best been variable. Crucially, this review has found that mental health needs are still not being identified early enough, information is not being consistently shared between agencies responsible for the people in their care, and the post-release treatment and support is inconsistent and insufficient.

We observe these issues all too often in our own criminal justice services, where our expert staff provide tailored psychological support to prisoners in a number of prisons across the North of England, and our Mental Health Care Navigation Service helps people to transition out of prison into the community, ensuring essentials like good access to mental health treatment, GPs and dentist registration, and adequate housing and benefits are in place. All too often, it’s a real struggle to arrange for mental health services to support someone who’s recently been released from prison, or we see that their mental health is undermined by other barriers – such as a lack of welfare support or suitable housing.   

However, there is some cause for reassurance in this comprehensive report. NHS England’s RECONNECT programme, which takes a number of learnings from our own navigator programme and the care after custody successes we’ve seen in our North East England prison provision, is highlighted as an example of good practice with a call for its expansion nationally. It’s clear that there are islands of good practice for mental health across the national system, but without a concerted effort to join these up, the criminal justice environment is likely to continue failing to address people’s mental health needs – and in many instances it may make it worse.

The recommendations for change would make a substantive difference and would help to address longstanding issues, including delays in transfer from prison to mental health hospitals and the inappropriate use of prisons as a supposed ‘place of safety’ under the Mental Health Act. Crucially, none of this can be achieved without sufficient funding going to the right places in the justice system, and without a systematic review which takes the mental health needs of prisoners and ex-offenders into account.

This vital joint report should be wake-up call for the government, and we hope that they will take this opportunity to learn from good practice in pioneering services tackling the mental health needs of people in contact with the criminal justice system.

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