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Howard League blog · 4 Jul 2022

A step towards a more humane criminal justice system

For the past three years, the Howard League for Penal Reform has been campaigning against archaic legislation which allows courts to send acutely unwell people to prison as a ‘place of safety’ or for their ‘own protection’. Last week, the government published a Draft Mental Health Bill which would finally remove this option.

The draft Bill amends provisions in the Mental Health Act 1983 and the Bail Act 1976 which allow courts to remand people to custody because they are in mental health crisis, a problem which has been repeatedly raised by the Howard League and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (for which the Howard League provides the secretariat). With that in mind, I want to pay particular tribute to my predecessor Frances Crook, for initiating our work in this area, and to Dr Miranda Bevan – who authored our publications on the topic.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons recently described coming across a woman who had deliberately jumped in front of traffic four times, in the hope that it would end her life. In a nation which is rightly proud of its universal healthcare service, we might expect someone in such acute crisis to receive appropriate care and support. Instead, the woman was arrested for a public order offence and then remanded into prison because there was no available hospital place.

Remand on mental health grounds can have a dire impact on wider prison life, as well as the person who is wrongly held in custody. In one prison, inspectors found that “[w]omen attending the health care department for their GP appointments could hear the constant screaming of one of the women” who had been remanded for her own protection. It is hard to imagine anything further from the “trauma-informed and trauma-responsive” women’s estate envisioned in the Prisons Strategy White Paper.

The draft Bill removes prison as a place of safety and amends provisions which allow courts to remand someone to custody for their own protection or welfare. Where someone has been charged with a non-imprisonable offence, the court will have to grant bail with conditions which address the mental health concern. Where the offence is imprisonable, courts will be directed to consider remand to hospital.

These are hugely welcome changes which will make a real difference to people’s lives. The Howard League hopes to see the Ministry of Justice build on the new legislation by repealing remand for own protection or welfare in all circumstances, including where courts mistakenly believe that it will protect someone from exploitation or abuse. In the Howard League’s recent work on children remanded to custody, for example, we spoke to a boy who had been remanded to protect him from his exploiters and then assaulted in prison.

These are hugely welcome changes which will make a real difference to people’s lives.

The Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care do not collect data on the number of people who are remanded to prison on mental health grounds, as the Howard League has learnt from repeated Freedom of Information requests.

However, in oral evidence to the APPG on Women in the Penal System, the prison inspectorate explained that three women’s prisons – a fraction of the overall estate – had identified nearly 70 women who had been remanded over the previous year because they were in mental health crisis. Half of those with recorded outcomes were eventually transferred from the prison to a secure hospital.

The legislation will mean that in future, people like the 68 women identified by the inspectorate do not have to endure a traumatising stay in prison while they wait for a hospital bed. Like the new statutory time limit for transfers from prison to hospital which is included in the draft Bill, these amendments will need to be properly resourced to work well: people who are diverted to hospital care need beds to go to.

The Draft Mental Health Bill is a step towards a more humane criminal justice system, where people are not punished for being in crisis and prisons do not act as a “holding pen” (in the words of last year’s sentencing white paper) for those who are seriously unwell. The Howard League is proud of its contribution to this vital reform and looks forward to seeing the proposals in the Bill fully resourced and implemented.

Andrea Coomber

Comments

  • Philip Prior says:

    Very Good news it shows if we all stick together then some positive things happens to vulnerable people

  • Wendy Roberts says:

    This is good news for vulnerable people however provision of appropriate mental health care is in short supply after years of austerity and our Health Services are under enormous strain. Prison is no place for those in dire need of support and care.

  • Jackie Staniforth says:

    Bless you, a victory indeed. May this be the start of better care for the mentally ill.

  • Nick Godwin says:

    At last some intelligence and humanity in ending the inappropriate use of prisons to ‘manage’ vulnerable individuals – particularly women.

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