Vulnerable inmate serving indefinite prison sentence held in isolation for 800 days

Prisoners with mental health needs serving indefinite jail terms are frequently being placed in isolation, with one spending more than two years in segregation, a damning report has found.

Overcrowded prisons are often using care and separation units (CSUs) – usually meant to help manage poor behaviour – to hold inmates with complex mental health needs because of delays finding space in health units, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) has found.

This often impacts inmates serving imprisonment for public protection sentences (IPP), in which offenders were given a minimum jail term but no maximum, who have a high rate of suicide and self-harm.

IPP sentences were imposed on 8,711 people and were abolished in 2012, but not retrospectively, leaving almost 3,000 people languishing in prison, often for minor offences. Almost 700 of these inmates have served more than 10 years longer than the minimum term they were given.

The Independent revealed last year that seven more inmates serving IPP terms had taken their own lives, bringing the total number of such deaths to 88.

The IMB report found one IPP inmate suffering with a personality disorder spent over 800 days in the CSU – during which time he repeatedly self-harmed – before he was finally moved to a mental health unit.

At a category B training prison, another IPP prisoner with a serious mental illness and physical and learning disabilities, was held in the CSU for over 250 days. IMB volunteers reported concerns over his deterioration, describing him as confused, tearful, unpredictable, and volatile.

The mental wellbeing and behaviour of the men often deteriorated further during these prolonged periods in isolation, the report said.

Meanwhile at HMP Coldingley, a Category C prison in Surrey, two out of three recent self-inflicted deaths were of men serving IPP sentences who were in segregation.

Their deaths in March last year came in the wake of the government’s rejection of a justice select committee recommendation to resentence all IPP inmates.

“Many IMBs reported this announcement to be a catalyst for IPP prisoners’ poor mental health and feelings of hopelessness,” the report noted.

Donna Mooney’s brother took his own life in prison and she now campaigns for IPP reform (Donna Mooney/UNGRIPP)
Donna Mooney’s brother took his own life in prison and she now campaigns for IPP reform (Donna Mooney/UNGRIPP)

Donna Mooney, of IPP campaign group UNGRIPP, lost her brother Tommy Nicol in 2015 when he took his own life after he spent 90 days in segregation – including some time spent in an unfurnished cell.

She said use of segregation is a “huge issue” for people serving an IPP who suffer from high levels of mental health concerns, as well as high rates of suicide and self-harm because of the loss of hope from a serving sentence with no release date.

She told The Independent: “We know that those serving IPP sentences have a level of mental health problem because of the loss of hope. And it is well-documented that IPPs have higher rates of self-harm and suicide.

“I don’t think that prison staff are qualified to deal with people suffering from severe mental health conditions.

“It’s horrendous because we also know that putting people in segregation makes them worse. It’s really sad and upsetting that this is continuing even though the damage is widely known.”

The IMB report raised concerns over frequent failures to meet targets to transfer severely unwell men to hospital within 28-day targets – adding delays were found throughout the entire process – at referral, assessment and transfer stage.

IMB national chair Elisabeth Davies said segregation is the “wrong tool” to manage the mental health crisis in prisons.

“Segregating any prisoner, especially those with mental health needs, is not a decision taken lightly by prison managers. While they clearly feel that they have no other option, CSUs should not be used as holding bays for these vulnerable individuals,” she added.

“While local IMBs found that overall staff worked hard to support prisoners in the best way that they could, collectively they have reported a disturbing picture of mentally unwell men spending lengthy periods in isolation, which often results in a deterioration of their mental health.

“If anything is to change, the solution is, and has always been, providing appropriate mental health provision in the community and tighter controls around the transfer times from prison to hospital.”

A government spokesperson said: “Segregation is an absolute last resort for those deemed a danger to themselves or others.

“Prisoners are entitled to the same care as they would receive in the community, which is why we guarantee the most vulnerable individuals are able to access mental health support tailored to their needs.”