I have spoken before about the events that lead to me spending 2 months in prison. It was one of the lowest points mentally in my life, I was desperate. It was surreal and I was scared. A couple of the police officers on the scene insisted I be taken to hospital, a detective disagreed. The officers in the watch house continued to try to contact the crisis team but they had made the decision that I wasn’t unwell enough. I had just attempted to commit a crime, but I wasn’t unwell in their eyes.
According to an interview with the Mental Health Commission last year, 38% of the prisoners that were in the system at that time had a mental illness. They allege that one in three prisoners with a mental illness have been in prison five times or more. I am so glad that I am not part of that statistic. However there were women I had met while in prison who had served multiple prison sentences. Some bouncing between a nearby forensic psychiatric unit and the prison system.
I was placed in a special unit within the jail for the prisoners who suffered from a mental illness. There were a lot of rules in place, as is to be expected in a prison setting, both for the safety of the prisoners and prison officers. We slept in heavy canvas gowns, with the lights on, so many lights.
Even though I was in a designated unit for people with a mental illness, the only thing different about it was the amount of prison officers we had. There was little treatment for mental illness, only a couple of psychiatrists to cover the large prison community. Admission of self harm urges or suicidal ideation resulted in being placed in isolation. After an episode of self harm my blankets were taken for the night and I had to sleep on my back with my arms by my side. It was the middle of winter.
A prison is no place for the mentally ill. A prison is not a place for treatment of the mentally ill. A prison is a place of punishment not growth. A lot of the mentally ill are homeless, they see prison as a warm place to sleep, somewhere that is safer than the life they have on the streets.
The government is cutting back on services for the mentally ill. They are closing secure wards and the flow on effect sees the mentally ill filling the prison systems. The report by the Mental Health Commission found that the police force detain, on average, one mentally ill person every 2 hours. Most of these people will be turned away from inpatient services because there is simply no beds.
The rate of mentally ill people in prisons is too high. There needs to be more secure mental health facilities, with treatment as their focus instead of punishment. Something needs to help stop the cycle.
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