Mentally ill in Prison: Alarming rates and lack of resources

Originally published on by Ayanda Mkhwanazi  

In February, 3 755 inmates were recorded as being mentally ill out of a population of almost 150 000
“This is according to Police and Prison Civil Rights Union (Popcru)
“If [a mentally ill] a prisoner is identified, they will be taken to the hospital section where a psychiatrist will conduct an assessment then prescribe relevant treatment,” said Popcru General Secretary Nkosinathi Theledi.
In February, 3 755 inmates were recorded as being mentally ill out of a population of almost 150 000.

Twenty one inmates committed suicide in 2013/14, according to the Correctional Service Department’s 2013/14 annual report, an increase from 13 in the previous financial year.

Although the Department of Correctional Services said it is attending to the needs of inmates who have been identified with mental illnesses, it acknowledged that the mental health needs of awaiting trial prisoners – some 28% of the prison population – are unknown.

“It is not possible to know how many awaiting trial detainees are in need of mental health care unless, on admission, they report or submit any form of proof that they are receiving treatment,” said Correctional Services spokesman Manelisi Wolela.

“Awaiting trial prisoners are not that accessible so we don’t know what the need is for mental health services,” said Professor Lukas Muntingh at the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape.

“If you are a shorter term or un-sentenced prisoner it is hard to access a psychologist. Only sentenced prisoners from two years and longer get a sentence plan,” said Muntingh.

He added that the suicide rate in South African prisons could be an indicator and reason for concern.

“If there is a suicide in a British prison even if it is one it is a huge deal. Prisoners are actually guarded and watched but here it is normal,” said Munting.

“The response is very relaxed from our department”.

However, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) said a number of inmates with mental illness could remain undetected in the system.
Nicro is a non-government organisation providing comprehensive crime prevention services across South Africa. National Advocacy and Lobbying Manager Venessa Padayachee said the organisation believed mental illness in prisons is not thoroughly addressed.
“Attention to screening procedures and the training of staff to detect mental illnesses. Is everyone being screened or do many slip through the gaps?” said Padayachee.
She said correctional centres do not have the suitable facilities such as psychiatric services to support mentally ill inmates.

Muntingh shares Padayachee’s sentiments, adding that the lack of psychiatrists not only in prisons but in the country as a whole makes the situation worse.

Wolela conceded that in the absence of resident psychiatrists the department utilises private psychiatrists or those recommended by the Department of Health.

Muntingh said the concern around mental illness in prisons is the vulnerability of these inmates and their need for protection.

“They can harm themselves or other inmates. Greater awareness needs to be created in prisons so that they are informed about mental health and what to expect,” said Muntingh. –Health-e News”

3 responses to “Mentally ill in Prison: Alarming rates and lack of resources

  1. Wow this is a powerful piece! I had no idea that mental health had got this bad in prisons but to be honest , sadly, I’m not surprised. I just wrote a piece about mental health myself. I noticed that you mentioned multiple countries in your piece. I wonder if you’d be interested in reading about mental health in Canada but not in respect to inmates but rather legal professionals. I’ll leave the post here for you check out. Perhaps we can collaborate if you’re interested.


    • I’m not sure if it’s worse, but bad is still bad. Actually, not receiving proper care is unacceptable. I think of how I feel in my tenderest of states and being in a place that won’t be kind to it. Ulgh. Horrible.

      Liked by 1 person

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