Prison treatment of the mentally ill and those with addiction high on agenda of new Government taskforce

Conor Ganly

Reporter:

Conor Ganly

Email:

news@leinsterexpress.ie

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Secure unit at the Midlands Prison Portlaoise

The Government has set up a new task force to examine the treatment and propose changes to how people with addiction and mental health problems are dealt with by the criminal justice system with a particular focus on prisons.

The Department of Justice said new High Level Taskforce will consider the mental health and addiction challenges of people interacting with the criminal justice system, following approval by Cabinet last wee week.

A statement said the establishment of the Taskforce is further to the Government’s commitment to ensure the critical mental health needs for people in prison are met, addiction treatments are provided and primary care support is available on release, in order to ensure improved outcomes for individuals and for society.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee spoke about the importance of providing appropriate healthcare and responding to the needs of vulnerable, sometimes seriously ill, people who interact with the criminal justice system.

“The Taskforce will look at what is needed to better support and help those with addiction and mental health needs who have been imprisoned and will also look at what supports are needed to continue their recovery upon release.

“However, it is widely acknowledged that a certain cohort of people are too ill to be in prison, as they require urgent treatment. 

“As a society that values human dignity, respect and equality, I am clear that we need to do better for people who are in these circumstances. We need to put in place properly resourced, appropriately located systems of care for these most vulnerable people and the establishment of this Taskforce is an important step to progressing this,” she said.

A statement said the Taskforce membership will include representatives from a wide cross-section of health agencies and the Justice sector as well as from relevant stakeholders, including the HSE, Central Mental Hospital, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, An Garda Síochána, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

The Taskforce will also consult with other relevant stakeholders, as required, such as the Mental Health Commission, Inspector of Prisons, Prison Visiting Committees, Irish Penal Reform Trust and academia.

Minister McEntee said she wants a High Level Implementation Plan to be delivered by the end of 2021. 

“I know that this is an ambitious timeframe but we are committed to developing a system that provides comprehensive and coordinated mental health support for those who need it. The Taskforce will build on the previous work of the Interdepartmental group which examined issues relating to people with mental health issues who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Significant progress can and will be made.”

The Minister for Justice launched the project with the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly,  Minister of State with Responsibility for Mental Health and Older people Mary Butler and Minister of State for Public Health, Wellbeing and National Drugs Strategy, Frank Feighan.

"We aim to enhance care provision overall and to better focus on the wider societal supports and needs of prisoners and ex-prisoners," said Minister Donnelly.

"While the judicial and health systems have historically worked closely together, and there have been improvements over recent years, such as the expansion of forensic mental health care within prisons, this is an opportune time to review, take stock and agree on further improvements which can be delivered in the short term. In this context, the opening soon of the new HSE National Forensic Mental Health facility at Portrane, to address acknowledged capacity pressures by replacing the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum is particularly welcome".

 Minister Feighan concluded by saying: "We know that people in prison are more likely to have used drugs than the general population and that Irish prisons treated 848 cases for problem drug use in 2019. They also are at greater risk of related mental and physical health issues. Upon release from prison, these health issues don’t go away and people can be vulnerable to relapse and overdose. The task force will address in a holistic way the health and social needs of people in prison who use drugs, during and after their release, in line with the national and the European drugs strategies.’’

Terms of Reference

The following terms of reference have been agreed:

(i)            To assess how best to take forward the recommendations from the first and second reports of the Inter Departmental Group to examine issues relating to people with mental health issues coming into contact with the criminal justice system (Summary of recommendations attached).

(ii)           To consult with stakeholders and consider relevant reports, proposals, recommendations and strategic actions including, but not limited to, the recommendations of the Council of Europe Commission on the Prevention of Torture reports and the ongoing work of the Steering Group on the Health Needs Assessment underway in the Irish Prison Service, with a view to identifying any additional actions relating to people with mental health challenges or a dual diagnosis of mental health and drug or alcohol addiction challenges who come into contact with the criminal justice system that may be necessary.

(iii)          To prepare a High Level Implementation Plan by end of 2021 outlining lead responsibilities and timelines for any actions identified in (i) and (ii) with      operational subgroups being set up as necessary.

 

(iv)          Report on implementation periodically to relevant Ministers and Ministers of State.