Almost 40 per cent of inmates entering Victorian jails have a mental illness, prompting concerns overcrowded prisons will exacerbate prisoner health issues.
A written response from the state government to questions on notice reveal a growing number of people entering the prison system are mentally ill, with 38 per cent of people entering prison in 2012 assessed as mentally unwell compared to 32 per cent in 2010.
In 2007, just 30 per cent of Victorian prisoners were diagnosed with a mental illness.
Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders chief executive Carol Nikakis said drug and alcohol issues and acquired brain injuries often masked mental health needs or made treatment more challenging.
Ms Nikakis said she supported increased connections between the community mental health sector and the Department of Justice to ensure prisoners received treatment after release.
The Napthine government is considering building a new forensic hospital unit as it struggles to respond to mental health issues among Victoria’s growing prison population, which has increased by almost 12 per cent in the past three years to more than 5000 inmates.
It is currently completing a plan and a range of options are being considered, a spokesman said.
Federation of Community Legal Centres executive officer Liana Buchanan said pressure on the state’s overcrowded prisons made the situation worse.
”There is a risk prisoners who are going into an overcrowded system and a system that is under pressure, will not get the help they need,” she said.
She said a ”postcode justice system” operated in Victoria, with mentally ill offenders receiving a specialist response and being able to connect to good mental health services if they landed in a court where those services existed.
A Department of Justice spokesman said people entering the prison system generally had poorer health, higher rates of mental illness, and were more likely to have alcohol or substance abuse issues than the general community.
”Victoria’s prison system provides comprehensive treatment for prisoners with mental illness, including specialist clinical care, assessments, referrals and ongoing treatment throughout their prison term,” he said.
He said prison health services would continue to expand as prisoner numbers increased.
”As part of the 2012 budget, funding for new prison beds included funding for mental health services to ensure that these services increase as the prison population rises. This has allowed us to better manage and treat these prisoners, many of whom may have never had access to clinical treatment or mental health services prior to coming into prison.”
This article first appeared on The Age on 26 February, 2014.