General News — 26 February 2014
Crowded prisons add to mental health crisis

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.

Shadow corrections minister Martin Pakula said the state government had  failed in early intervention and diversion.bigstock-dramatic-sky-with-silhouette-o-16376072

”This government likes to pretend it’s tough on crime, but there’s nothing  tough about filling up our prisons with an ever-increasing number of people with  mental illness,” he said.

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.

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