You might recall that the Joint Committee of Human Rights (JCHR) published its seventh report of session 2016-17, Mental Health and Deaths in Prison: Interim Report on 2 May 2017. This recommended primary legislation to improve mental health services across secure settings. On 15 January 2018 the Government released its response. Whilst it is aware of challenges faced in ensuring that vulnerable people in a detained setting are safeguarded, the Government does not consider that imposing new legal obligations will necessarily produce positive results. Rather, the Government’s response is clear that existing legislation, combined with a number of new programmes, staff investment and training is what is required to provide safe and secure accommodation, which will need to be assessed at a local level (on a prison by prison basis) given the varying needs of each establishment and prisoner cohort.

The response to the recommendations includes requirements that:

  • each prisoner has a dedicated prison officer as a key worker, to support them. The key worker will receive mental health awareness training. The aim is to help prisoners turn away from crime and reduce drivers of self-harm and self-inflicted death. An increase in staff will assist in implementing this requirement
  • prisoners spend a reasonable part of the day out of their cell, potentially unlocked for as much as 10 hours and 15 minutes
  • improvements in family contact be made for prisoners who are at risk of self-harm and suicide, with families invited to contribute to the assessment, care in custody and teamwork reviews
  • prisoners must be transferred to secure hospitals where indicated within 14 days (in urgent cases)
  • governors remain responsible for staffing levels, to be able to address the needs of their prison population
  • in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equalities Act 2010 and public law, prisoners are treated with humanity, fairness and respect for their dignity

In terms of investment to achieve these aims:

  • there will be investment in the prison estate to deliver up to 10,000 new places, to ensure levels of crowding are carefully managed
  • the response includes a commitment to increasing the number of prison officers by 2,500 by the end of 2018, with an investment of £100 million. So far an additional 1,255 officers have been provided

As well as addressing the recommendations, the Government is looking to address and achieve parity between what the general public receives in terms of mental health treatment, compared with the prison population. It is also developing a strategy to address issues for female prisoners with mental health problems which are often exacerbated by custody, as well as aiming to secure accommodation for prisoners with mental health problems on their release. This latter measure will enable released prisoners to readily register with a GP and access the treatment they require.

Whilst the Government does not consider that any further legislative measures are necessary to improve mental health services in prisons, it has stated that ‘we are committed to providing decent and safe prisons. We have a duty of care to all prisoners, this includes people at risk of suicide or self-harm and those with mental health issues. We remain committed to making progress against recommendations’. Accordingly the Government confirms that it will pursue the strongest non-statutory and administrative levers to make improvements.