Impact News

Responding to Violence, Suicide, Psychosis and Trauma

Mental health and offending: One man’s prison experience

A new report today by Lord Keith Bradley says offenders with mental health problems are being failed by the criminal justice system. David Smith, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, explains why prison wasn’t the right place for him

* Mary O’Hara
*, Thursday 30 April 2009 16.47 BST

Like many people who run up against the criminal justice system while dealing with a serious mental health condition, David Smith [not his real name] felt that neither the police nor the prison service were equipped to deal with him. Smith has schizoaffective disorder. He manages his condition with fortnightly injections but in early 2008 he missed a series of appointments for medication, and became unwell.

By April his symptoms returned. These included hearing voices. David went to speak to his mother, with whom he had a fraught relationship, about his problems but the encounter turned into a confrontation that frightened her. At 2am the police arrested him on suspicion of common assault. He was locked in police cells for four days.

When he finally went to court they asked for a psychiatric report. The judge recommended that Smith receive hospital treatment but in the absence of a bed in a secure mental health unit Smith was instead sent to Wormwood Scrubs prison and spent a total of four months there.

“I have difficulty remembering my appointments; I never intend to miss any, I just find it difficult to remember when they are,” David says, explaining his state of mind at the time of his arrest. “My regular CPN [community psychiatric nurse] understands this and she gives me a ring the day before to remind me. When she went on leave I got a new CPN. He knew I couldn’t remember my appointments but he wouldn’t ring me with a reminder.

“I must have missed more than one injection,” he concludes. “My friends tell me there’s a pattern when I’m getting unwell. My symptoms came back and when I was at home one day I heard my mum screaming, ‘I’m going to kill myself’. I went to speak to her. I tried to talk to her. Mum just got frightened. I didn’t get anywhere with her so I went home.”

When he was arrested, Smith says, he did his best to explain himself to police officers but what happened was unsettling and frustrating. He recalls: “At the station another police officer asked me exactly the same questions; they didn’t look at any of the notes that had been taken. The policeman was trying to wind me up. I was so pissed off, I just said ‘yeah, whatever’ and sat down. They knew I had a mental illness as my mum phoned the hospital before she phoned the police. I was interviewed and put in a cell for four days. When I went to court the solicitor explained about my condition. One of the first things they said was that they needed a psychiatric report. Then the judge said I should be in hospital but there weren’t any secure beds so I went straight to Scrubs.

“When I got there I was very unwell but I didn’t know I was so I told them I didn’t have a mental illness and they put me on a general prison wing. They did put me in a single cell so I guess they had my [medical] notes. On my first day someone took the TV out of my cell. I thought to myself they’ll take anything, so I sat in my cell for two weeks. For those two weeks I was probably getting worse, more unwell. No one noticed, they [the prison] haven’t got the staff to notice.”

After throwing a chair and wardens intervening because his behaviour became so erratic, Smith was put in the hospital wing of the prison but was soon transferred back into the general prison population.

He reacted by throwing a chair.

“I spent the last two months in the general wing. I was well then. I talked to staff a lot. They were good to me. When I’m well I’m very polite so I was no trouble.”

Smith says that most of all he felt unlistened to, as if what he was going through was misinterpreted and that the prison wasn’t equipped to deal with his problems. He decided to write to a judge to see if he could get his point of view across.

“I wanted the judge to know what happened from my point of view. I felt I hadn’t been heard in court,” he explains. “Everyone talked about me and not to me. I wanted to say I was sorry. My case came up again and the judge said that I had clearly stabilised, I understood what had happened and that I had already served the time I would have done on a guilty plea while waiting for a bed in a secure hospital so I could go.”

Prison life is simply not the right environment for people like himself, Smith believes.

“If you can handle yourself when in prison you’re OK, if not it’s all over,” he says. “I managed but I met guys who came in after me and they tried to commit suicide or burn down their cells. It’s a 23-hour lock down. I spent most of my time pacing in my cell. I can still remember the pattern my pacing took, the same one over and over again. I never want to go back. I’m doing everything in my power not to go back. I’m keeping myself busy.”

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