Locking up prisoners with mental health problems is both cruel and barbaric…

A few months ago I took a tour of the Crumlin Road Gaol. During the tour the guide explained how during the 19th century it was the practice to keep prisoners solitary at all times. This was known as the Separate System. To quote the Wikipedia article on it:

The objective of such a prison or “penitentiary” was that of penance by the prisoners through silent reflection upon their crimes and behaviour, as much as that of prison security.


An example of isolation in lincoln castle prison chapel

Prisoners were alone in their cells. When they were moved from their cells they were hooded. Even in church they were kept in separate booths unable to see other prisoners. Tom Clarke, one of the leaders of the 1916 rising experienced such a system after being convicted of his part in an explosives campaign in the 1880’s.

As you can imagine the social isolation drove many prisoners mad. During the tour I was thinking what a sadistic shower the Victorians really were.

Roll forward to modern times and you have to ask the question are we really much better than the Victorians?

The Detail has a report on how a how prisoner in Maghaberry blinded himself by “gouging” his eyes. To quote from the post:

Sean Lynch was 23-years-old in 2014 when he was remanded in custody facing assault charges.

Despite the fact that a detailed medical report was sent to Maghaberry stating that a psychiatric assessment was an “absolute necessity”, he was treated as a “routine referral” and it was two weeks before he was taken to see a psychiatrist.

A new report by Northern Ireland’s Prisoner Ombudsman Tom McGonigle has described Mr Lynch’s self-harming incident as “extreme and shocking”. The report refers to CCTV footage from an observation cell of Mr Lynch “gouging” his eye rendering himself blind and inflicting injuries to his groin.

Mr McGonigle criticised prison officers for not intervening in the self harming incident that occured over a period of 67 minutes during which Mr Lynch was directly observed and spoken to by landing officers for 17 minutes.

This incident is shocking but really it is the tip of a very large iceberg. From a past report by the Detail:

in October 2011 the trust’s director of Adult Services, Desmond Bannon, told the Health Committee at Stormont that of 5,000 prisoners treated in jail over the course of a year, some 1,000 would have a personality disorder, 130 a psychosis, 750 a neurosis, 712 an addiction, and that a further 12 prisoners would have attempted suicide in the previous seven days;

in September 2011 the Health Minister, Edwin Poots MLA, told the Assembly that “90% of prisoners have a diagnosable mental health problem, substance misuse problem, or both”.

There have also been some interesting cases at the European Court on prisoners and mental health.

The [European] Court [of Human Rights] has held on many occasions that the detention of a person who is ill may raise issues under Article 3 of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment] … and that the lack of appropriate medical care may amount to treatment contrary to that provision … In particular, the assessment of whether the particular conditions of detention are incompatible with the standards of Article 3 has, in the case of mentally ill persons, to take into consideration their vulnerability and their inability, in some cases, to complain coherently or at all about how they are being affected by any particular treatment …

Many of you reading this may have suffered from mental health problems. The idea of someone with an anxiety disorder for example being locked up in a cold grey cell for 23 hours a day is both cruel and barbaric. Prisons should only be for violent offenders or those who are a risk to society. We need a system that reforms people, not tortures them.

In 100 years’ time will people look back at us and wonder how we let such cruelty go on?

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  • murdockp

    a big problem that society has had to tackle for thousands of years.

    Peter Sutcliffe and Ian Brady were mentally ill but most people would agree incarnation fits the crime of murder I tend to agree.

    Every day in Northern Ireland personal responsibility is eroded as the state creates a culture where criminals are now seen as victims this has to be reversed and people held responsible for thier crimes. the ‘he had a traumatic childhood’ in defence of robbing your granny does not wash with me.

    I certainly don’t have the answers but I do feel safer knowing that people who might rob or attack me are not freely roaming the streets.

  • Brian O’Neill

    I am not saying let me roam the streets. There must be some kind of model were they are secure but in more of a reform environment.

  • Cosmo

    It seems intuitive to me, that people with mental problems should if possible be out in the open air, perhaps doing physical activity as much as possible, and be more in touch with nature.

  • Cosmo

    While I have sympathy with a ‘knee jerk’ reaction, just get these horrible violent people away from me; surely sometimes we have to consider more long-term solutions, which might actually also make cost savings further down the track.

  • Thomas Barber

    Where a prison sentence is given retribution and the environment the prisoner is sent to should be proportional to the crime, it is morally unjustified to equate a shoplifter with an armed robber or someone convicted of selling stolen goods with a murderer yet they are all imprisoned within the same system in this country and are all tarred with the one brush. The case above is shocking in that other human beings who could have intervened and stopped, allowed another vulnerable human being to gouge his own eyes out, what type of people are they, they should not be in the job they are employed to do and that vulnerable person should have been in a secure hospitall unit rather than prison. I know another case up in Maghaberry where two brothers were in at the same time, one was vulnerable like Sean Lynch and the other was on the wings. The brother that was on the wings was visited by the prison governor late one night and informed his father had just died, knowing how this news would affect his vulnerable brother he asked could he be brought to the hospital to bring the bad news to his brother and was refused he protested and refused to lock up and the governor called for the riot squad who brought him to the punishment wings, he died that same night from his injuries inflicted by prison officers who claimed they used reasonable restraint.

    Our prison system is f….. up and the criteria for employing prison officers needs updating to reflect changing times, prison should be a deterrent not retribution or revenge and vulnerable people should not be imprisoned. Dangerous vulnerable prisonners convicted of serious crime should be in secure mental facilities which unfortunately we dont have, the closest being Barlinnie secure unit in Scotland.

  • Reader

    Ah, the chain gang.

  • Reader

    That’s a bit harsh on the victorian prison system Brian.
    In those days, the poor were badly clothed, often cold, often hungry, lived in cramped conditions and quite often suffered from long term illnesses or injuries with poor treatment and poor prospects.
    You would have to come up with some sort of system to make prison at least a little bit worse than life on the outside.
    At least the victorians had reached an economic position where it became practical to keep people locked up for significant periods. In the olden days cheaper, quicker methods were used.

  • Cosmo

    you made me laugh ! yes, I see how my ‘worthy’ comment could be given a hard labour interpretation.
    I was thinking more runner beans, salad or spuds, than tarmac laying and breaking rocks.

  • notimetoshine

    The problem is our justice system is all about punishment and pays at best lip service to rehabilitation. ‘lock em up’ doesn’t work in the long term and is hideously expensive.

    The problem is people get so caught up in the emotional arguments that a rational conversation is impossible to have on criminal justice.

    For instance, young offenders in their late teens early 20s are sent to prison, where they graduate from the university of crime. Even if they do manage to receive training and education (Something which is very rare) along with proper rehabilitation, they are essentially unemployable. So what do we do? Should a mistake some made when they were young essentially delete them from society for good? Are we in the business of punishment for life?

    We need a total rethink of our criminal justice system and the philosophy underlying it. We need to be locking up less, and for shorter periods, with a focus on changing patterns of behaviour and challenging the impulse of criminality.

    Oh and as for your reference to a bad or traumatic childhood, take note of the fact that up to 40% of the UK prison population are care leavers and that 12% of prisoners have had previous significant psychiatric problems, along with huge numbers of mentally ill people in prison, according to the prison reform trust.

    You make an emotional argument, but don’t those figures indicate that backgrounds of offenders are important in determining how we deal with people in the criminal justice system? Isn’t it indicative of a failure of the system? Locking them up won’t do anything long term, it’s just expensive folly, a sop to the daily mail and express readers of this world.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I hardly think being ‘harsh’ on the harsh deserves comment. The Victorian period was undoubtedly harsh on anyone seen as undeserving, part of ‘the lower orders’, members of the ‘criminal class’, the poor, the unskilled, the subsistence farmer, ad infinitum.
    The question surely is not could we afford prisons but what exactly is incarceration for? There seems to be an enduring Victorian value in our view of crime and punishment that we might do well to examine.

  • Thomas Barber

    “In the olden days cheaper, quicker methods were used”

    Yes Reader it was called public torture and execution but the problem with that was there was no recourse for the innocent and everyone usually confessed to whatever they were accused of.

  • Reader

    I was talking about the punishment regime – trials are a different matter.
    From the medieval point of view, locking people up on bread and water made no sense when half starved people were dying in the fields to grow the grain.
    The Victorians had more of an agricultural surplus, but the poor still had a hard life, so they locked prisoners up in harsh conditions.
    And these days we have access to industrial and agricultural surpluses, so people are much more inclined to look at the welfare of prisoners.
    [I’m conscious that we are way off topic here – My main point is that people should be judged by their reactions to the conditions of their era. It’s difficult for us to judge them fairly when a rough day for us means getting stuck in a traffic jam after 9-5 and getting home to find we set the timer wrong on the hot water.]

  • Reader

    Speaking as a hay fever sufferer who also reacts to plant sap, I think I would rather be breaking rocks. In winter.

  • Cosmo

    Plant sap reaction! phew, that sounds very specific, but hopefully restricted and seasonal? so digging off season? Sounds like that’s you off the vegetable prep rota for the canteen. Laundry room?

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Padded cells and straitjackets were the Victorian ways of preventing self harm; but how would their use be reported today?

  • AntrimGael

    The terrible and most shameful part of all of this is that the majority of the public, so long as it doesn’t affect them, DON’T give a monkey’s cuss about incarcerated prisoners or people with mental illnesses, whether in jail or outside. Modern society is very selfish, insular and ‘me, me, me’ and these things just don’t register with most people and they couldn’t really give a toss.

  • Reader

    It’s not horrific – I can’t realistically operate a shredder (again), and I need to rush off for a shower and a change of clothes after mowing the grass, so I am excused domestic gardening duties.

  • I have to disagree profoundly. Sean Lynch is not representative of the typical mental health support requirement. He was incredibly dangerous and violent. He was a danger to people around him.

    Your article is based on falsehoods and astroturfing by speculation. It has no basis in reality as to how mentally ill patients are dealt with. High-Functioning Autism and ADHD are mental illnesses; does this exonerate someone from custody?

    Nonsense. People without control shouldn’t possess freedom as they deny others their freedom. More importantly, Lynch was in custody on this particular occasion because he breached a restraining order against his Girlfriend whom he threatened to kill. Given his violent behaviour, she’s alive today because of his stupidity.

    Sean wasn’t ill. He refused to engage. He was heavily into drugs and paying for drugs in jail. I wrote about him on my blog and I invite you to consider my points. If you’d spent 15 minutes to even browse through the report you would clearly see Sean was heavily monitored, regulated and given more help than you could even believe was possible in custody.

    You would be wise to actually read the report in full before passing comment as it’s obvious you’ve focused on the press release and article by Rebecca Black.


  • Fundamentally not true. The sheer overwhelming nature of evidence contrary to what you are saying is so abundant it’s astonishing you had
    the balls to spout what you just said.
    Extern, Niacro, PBNI, ACE are just a handful of the schemes aimed at rehabilitating offenders. More probation orders are handed out in Northern Ireland than any other judiciary per capita for similar offences across the board despite most of our laws having a lower starting point for custody.

  • They aren’t put in the same system at all. You are speculating, poorly.

  • notimetoshine

    I was talking about the need for a comprehensive overhall of criminal justice including reducing the numbers who are imprisoned, because prison obviously isn’t working. Northern Ireland recidivism rates are much higher amongst those released from a custodial sentence, than amongst those who didn’t receive a custodial sentence.

    I am well aware that there are many options for alternative sentencing, I was never denying that. But stand by the need for fundamental changes in criminal justice. Whatever is being offered as alternatives to custodial sentences clearly isn’t working as well as it should be. The recidivism rates for those who received non custodial sentences is still much too high especially amongst youth offenders.

    Long and short of it prisons are obviously failing at rehabilitation, probation services less so but still failing. Check the figures out: https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/news/adult-and-youth-reoffending-northern-ireland-cohort

    Finally, have a bit of manners. There is no call for the attitude in your post.

  • Thomas Barber

    Im not speculating im talking from experience having been there, seen with my own eyes.

  • Thomas Barber

    If your referring to the death of that prisoner who also died at the hands of prison officers in Maghaberry, the same night his father died, after being informed of his fathers death feel free to instigate proceedings. I was there, it happened.