Wednesday, 25 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Prison Mental Health Services
I appreciate this matter being taken this morning. The reason I tabled it is that I have had a long involvement in supporting people with mental health issues in my constituency and on a broader basis for a number of years. I also served on the prison committee of Cloverhill Prison for almost two years. Anybody who has been a member of a prison visiting committee will know the one job one has to sign on the dotted line is to represent the welfare of prisoners. It was a difficult experience but it teaches one a great deal about life when one meets a person in a cell who is behind bars because justice has been put in place. In this particular situation we would all accept that something needs to be done rather quickly.
I acknowledge the phonecall I received from the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, last night. She would dearly like to be here today but I understand she is tied up with other issues at the moment. She has taken a keen interest in mental health issues during her period in the Oireachtas. However, it is great to have my own county man here, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who also has a very good understanding of this situation.
We are discussing this issue today because of an article by Conor Gallagher in The Irish Times yesterday in which he reported the inhumane treatment of a mental health patient put into Cloverhill Prison, which was highlighted by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which found serious failings in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, and that prisoner in particular. We all know the details of the case. They were horrifying and shocking. I read them again this morning. I also acknowledge the Irish Prison Service wants to deal with this matter very urgently. It should not be happening.
I know the Minister will agree with me that we have to stop the practice of putting mentally ill patients into prison cells and, worst than that, isolating them in a terrible way. We must consider putting in place a system within our prisons that will specifically deal with mentally ill patients where there would be a special quarter for them in which psychologists and psychiatrists can deal with them. Isolating these patients in a cell for up to two weeks, apart from handing them in a bit of food, is obscene in this day and age. If we are to treat human beings with any bit of dignity and respect we must move away from this type of carry on. This is not the only case. As was highlighted in the article in The Irish Times yesterday, there are other such cases happening.
In our constituency offices from time to time, we are contacted by families who on many occasions are struggling to cope with a mentally ill family member and find their family members are brought to court and put into prison because there is nowhere else for them to go. The man in this instance was waiting to get into the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, for which there is a waiting list. Again, that begs the question of why we cannot provide more places in Dundrum.
I will not labour the point any further. This issue has been well flagged in recent days. I raise it in the context of being a former member of the board of Cloverhill Prison and on the basis of my involvement in many cases, some involving families who had a person put in prison because of mental illness. I hope the Minister of State's response will give us some good news. It would be the wish of everybody in this Seanad to move forward with this issue and make the changes necessary as quickly as possible.
I thank my colleague for raising this issue. The Minister for Justice yesterday welcomed the publication of the report of the committee for the prevention of torture and fully acknowledges the importance of external oversight and evaluation in helping develop and improve our penal systems. While the report offers encouragement in a number of areas and recognises progress made, it clearly identifies issues that need to be addressed urgently.Among the issues to be welcomed is the introduction by the IPS of a new prisoner complaints system before the end of the year which, when bedded down, will include an oversight role for the Ombudsman. In addition, a review of the prison rules is under way, taking account of the most recently published European model rules. A specifically designed detention facility in Dublin Airport will provide a dedicated short-term facility for persons refused permission to land and will reduce the need to transfer such persons to another facility. The operation, management and governance of special observation cells is being reviewed and a clear distinction between the operation of close supervision cells and safety observation cells will be made. The practice of slopping out has been significantly reduced over recent years, with over €130 million invested in capital projects to improve and modernise the prison estate.
One of the most pressing issues raised by the committee relates to how we provide for the complex needs of people with mental health difficulties who come into contact with the criminal justice system. This is a priority for the Minister for Justice and I am pleased to say that in September, she met my colleague, the Minister for Health, to discuss this. They agreed to establish a high-level, cross-departmental and cross-agency task force to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those imprisoned, as well as their primary care support on release. This work is under way with a view to planning for and implementing a revised model of care in order to deliver appropriate inpatient and step-down resources in the Central Mental Hospital, CMH, complemented by adequate prison in-reach and community forensic mental health services and supports. The Government acknowledges that every person with mental health difficulties coming into contact with the system should have access to a comprehensive mental health support system and the high-level task force will look at how we deliver this as a matter of urgency. Both the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, recognise the urgent need to design and put in place proper systems to care for the most vulnerable people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. It is only fair to acknowledge the very positive comments made by the CPT in its 2019 preliminary report regarding the overall high level of care provided by prison staff to prisoners, which demonstrated a genuine concern among staff for those in custody.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I accept that the setting up of that task force was very important to the three parties in government as part of the programme for Government. I am delighted to hear him say that the Ministers for Justice and Health have met. I do not want to be blaming the people in the Prison Service because they are not trained for this type of work. The task force is great. The Minister of State may not know the answer to this but when is it due to report back? If he does not have that answer today he might come back to me with it. In the meantime, we must ensure that there are psychiatrists, psychologists and people to deal with this issue within the Prison Service to deal with any mental health patient who ends up in prison. The divide needs to be addressed quite clearly in order that a person in this situation can go directly to a psychiatric hospital and not to a prison. It is not the place for those people and we see what happens, which shows that those people are in a vulnerable position if they end up in prison.
The Government is committed to delivering safe, secure and humane custody for those sent to prison in this State. This includes the provision of appropriate mental health services to persons in custody. We accept the CPT's findings that there is much to be done in this regard but welcome its recognition that progress has been made in a number of areas. We are considering how best to deliver appropriate CMH inpatient and step-down resources, complemented by adequate prison in-reach and community forensic mental health services and supports. This is a priority for the Ministers for Health and Justice and for the Government collectively. In addition, a review of the use of special observation cells is under way and appropriate and robust standard operating procedures and training on their use will be implemented. A new prisoner complaints system will be implemented before the end of the year and prison rules are under review to ensure they are aligned with international best practice.
Greater use is being made of alternatives to imprisonment and the IPS has developed a prison population management plan to maximise capacity within the estate, increasing the use of open centres and backdoor strategies, including structured temporary releases. The Irish Prison Service's capital strategy outlines plans for the complete replacement of outdated accommodation in Limerick and Portlaoise prisons, as well as improvements across a number of other prisons. A capital allocation of €36 million has been set aside for this under budget 2021. The Government and the IPS are committed to implementing the longer-term changes required to make our penal system safe, effective and able to respond to the needs of all prisoners, especially vulnerable ones. While there is unlikely to be a quick-fix solution to some of the issues highlighted by the CPT, we will work intensively together to ensure all people get the care and support they need from the system.
The Senator asked about when the task force will report back. I will try to get an answer for him on that as soon as possible.