More people are dying in prison than ever before and unless politicians and the public pay attention to the mental health of prisoners, record rates of self-harm will continue, a former inmate has claimed.
In the first feature of Prisons Week for Metro.co.uk, a new series looking at underreported issues affecting UK prisoners, Leroy Skeete shares his story about struggling with mental health while behind bars.
Last month, figures from the Ministry of Justice showed that levels of self-harm in prisons have hit a record high, with more than 60,000 incidents taking place in a year.
Those numbers have been labelled a ‘national scandal’ according to prison reform campaigners.
But according to Leroy, so long as the mental health of prisoners is neglected and inmates are made to feel ‘powerless and worthless’ both reoffending and self-harm in prison will continue to reach record levels.
Leroy, 50, who first went to prison at the age of 21, says that despite all the rhetoric from politicians and prison governors to ‘do things differently’ in order to reduce reoffending and self-harm, not much has changed when it comes to supporting those with mental health problems.
The now motivational speaker and businessman says that lack of empathy over the mental health of prisoners is something that is costing society dearly.
He told Metro.co.uk: ‘I was brought up in children’s homes. I had mental health issues already, when you put someone like me in prison, you’re taking someone with mental health problems already and putting them in an environment where those problems are going to get worse.
‘It got to the point where I was fixated on harming prison officers’.
Last released in 2009 after spending 11 years behind bars for GBH with intent, Leroy says that for people like himself, prison and tougher sentences may sound like the solution, but the lack of support often means underlying problems are never dealt with.
He still visits prisons to deliver talks and support rehabilitation programmes.
Prisoners have a disproportionately high rate of mental health conditions.
According to the Prison Reform Trust, 26 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody.
A quarter of women and 15 per cent of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis. The rate among the general public is about 4 per cent.
Self-inflicted deaths are 8.6 times more likely in prison than in the general population.
Leroy, who knows former inmates that have died by suicide in prison, says that he understands the need for politicians to sound ‘tough on crime’, but without an emphasis on mental health for those behind bars, self-harm and reoffending will continue to increase.
He adds: ‘I understand we need punishment, but without rehabilitation it’s pointless’.
Recalling his own experience, Leroy says that the little support he did receive in prison from governors and support workers, would drag him down and constantly emphasis the negatives about his background.
He says: ‘There’s no strategy. I didn’t feel like that the support services and workers were there for my benefit, they were in it for a job.
‘People kept telling me you’re never going to get released. That kind of thing made me hit rock bottom’.
According to the Prison Reform Trust, 40 per cent of prisons inspected in 2016–17 had inadequate or no training for prison officers to know when to refer a person for mental health support.
The National Audit Office has previously criticised the government over its failure in knowing how many people in prison have a mental illness or how much it is spending on treatment.
Leroy claims that he had problems with his temper and anger since he was young, issues which he says had he received support for early on, would’ve helped him in transforming his life.
Yet he’s keen to emphasise that prisons are also placed where ‘there’s a lot of bravado’ and an environment where prisoners are more likely than not to cover up their struggles with mental health.
He says: ‘I know people who took their own life in prison, I thought “no”, I’m going to fight this.’
Leroy acknowledges he’s one of the lucky few who with perseverance and determination, managed to use books in prison as a form of escape through which to teach himself about psychology and understand his own struggles with mental health.
He now goes into prisons to deliver talks to help others on their journey to rehabilitation.
Leroy adds: ‘If someone like me can change, there’s hope for everyone’.
However, Leroy says that from, his visits to prisons, inmates have repeatedly told him that things have got worse.
He added: ‘Their own statistics show self-harm levels at record levels, there’s riots in prisons, these things happen when people lose hope’.
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