Home UK News Men and women sent to prison despite committing no crime, while Britain ‘runs out of cells’

Men and women sent to prison despite committing no crime, while Britain ‘runs out of cells’

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mental health in prison

Men and women who are mentally ill continue to be sent to prison despite the fact that they have committed no crime, contributing to the high rates of self-harm and violence in prisons.

Under the Mental Health Act of 1983, courts have the authority to commit someone to jail as a “place of safety” merely for reasons of mental illness, rather than for any other reason. Furthermore, under the Bail Act of 1976, those accused of a crime might be held in jail “for their own protection” on the basis of mental health. There are no official data for the people imprisoned in this manner.

When the government revealed intentions to withdraw these powers from the courts last year, charities and activists applauded. However, the Proposed Mental Health Bill, which includes the recommendations, has yet to be introduced in Parliament.

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody told MPs and peers investigating the issue that it is “deeply concerned that the use of prison in such circumstances poses serious risk to mental health and therefore places lives in danger”. It pointed to a comment from one man in prison who said: “Jail is not a mental hospital. Well, it shouldn’t be. But it is at present.”

The Metropolitan Police have announced that starting at the end of this month, they would no longer respond to 999 calls involving mental health situations in London, unless a life is in danger. The police force regularly responds to over 500 callouts each month, the majority of which result in someone being held under the Mental Health Act, most commonly in a hospital.

Experts have warned that if courts lose their ability to imprison people for their own safety, the healthcare system must be appropriately supported so that beds are accessible for those in a mental health crisis. If the Proposed Mental Health Bill becomes law, inmates who become seriously mentally ill while incarcerated must be sent to a hospital within 28 days. Currently, waits are frequently lengthier due to a shortage of hospital beds.

HMP Belmarsh prison
Campaigners have long argued Britain imprisons far too many people each year (Image: Rex)

The Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) produced a report in May on women being sent to jail as a “place of safety.” It said that due to a shortage of healthcare beds in the community, Bronzefield received 75 women sent by courts on mental health grounds between August 2021 and August 2022, more than double the amount for the preceding 12-month period. From May to July 2022, 13 women were imprisoned purely on the basis of their mental health, with six of them attempting suicide.

A Culture of Imprisonment

Britain’s public policy has been criticised for placing too great an emphasis on imprisoning the public, when there are alternative courses of action, such as referral to public services. For years Britain has consistently had the largest number of admissions to prison, despite being a smaller nation.

At a Prison Reform Trust event held at the Old Bailey in May 2023, Sir John Major, ex-Prime Minister, said “we over-use prison under-value alternative sentences”. He criticises the fact that ‘rehabilitation is associated with being soft on crime’, and that the British system appears to provide people with ‘an education into prison’ at times, when there is the chance to ‘provide a route out of it’.

The United Kingdom has the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe and thus, we are currently in an overcrowding crisis. The Ministry of Justice has recently confessed that the earliest new prisons could open is 2027, meaning Britain will run out of cells in the meantime.

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