Suicide attempts, self-harming and little to no help for mental health issues. Shouldn't prison offer a duty of care?
Take it from me, maintaining your innocence while serving a life sentence is a hard station but that is nothing compared to the particular kind of hell endured by prisoners with mental health issues. And there are plenty of them.
It is a matter of statistical truth that approximately one in four people in wider society will at some stage in their lives suffer from mental health issues. That figure increases dramatically when you go inside.
Since the Tories under Thatcher ‘rationalised’ (butchered) the UK’s mental health regime back in the 1980s, your prisons have been full of people who really should be in hospital.
There have been at least 30 suicides in custody since the start of my incarceration. Many of them were people I knew, even friends. But it’s not just the deaths; there’s a fine line between self-harm and attempted suicide and I’ve seen plenty of desperate young men cross that line without a thought. Slit wrists and arms, slit throats and hangings; I even knew one poor lad that had a habit of scalding himself with boiling water.
Of course, if you’re suffering from a personality disorder or psychotic episodes, you’ve clearly got the potential to be a serious threat to others. But by the same token, if you’ve got mental health issues then you’re highly vulnerable to the more predatory sociopaths that also populate your environment.
And of course, if you’ve got mental health issues, it’s safe to say you’ll also be a long way down the ruthless social hierarchy of a prison wing. I often hear these plastic gangsters, the wannabes, taunting and trash-talking the mentally fragile. If you’re not much cop to start with then I guess the only way you’ll ever feel big is by making someone less able feel small; it was the same on the outside, just more politely done I guess.
These same ‘big men on the wing’ could just as easily be found holding intense conversations with prison officers; cosy chats about wing politics and gossip. Now I’m not saying they’re only a bunch of dirty fucking grasses, but would anyone blame me if I did?
And of course, who could blame the poor prison officers for seeking a bit of diversion from their crosswords by recruiting a few gossipy grasses? Any bit of diversion would be welcome to keep them from dwelling on the drudgery of their low-end jobs and low-end lives.
I feel strongly about this because I too have been brought very low by the prison system and let down badly when I asked for help. Out of the blue, I had found myself at the sharp end of a life sentence for a murder I didn’t commit. My liberty was taken away from me, I’d been engaged to be married, I had a family who loved me and who waited for me outside, devastated by my wrongful conviction. Yeah, those early days; they really were the bad times.
I knew I needed to speak to someone; a counsellor, anyone who could help me come to terms with the nightmare predicament I was in. So I applied to see a psychologist. It was two years before prison healthcare finally got round to scheduling me an appointment. By then, thankfully, I had managed to pick myself up, thanks in no small part to the support and love of my family.
Slit wrists and arms, slit throats and hangings; I even knew one poor lad that had a habit of scalding himself with boiling water.
But that really got me to thinking. Sure, I had been strong and I was also lucky enough to have a caring and supportive family network but what if I hadn’t had these advantages? And let’s be clear, a huge percentage of the young men in prison today either come from dysfunctional homes or have grown up in care; where do they draw their inner strength from when the weight of the prison system falls on their frightened shoulders?
It also made me think long and hard about a legal phrase that is almost throw-away but that applies here in spades. A duty of care. How many of those 30 suicides could have been avoided if the right intervention had been made and the right care given?
It’s at times like this I start to think of the plight of my friend Mark. A bona fide victim of the criminal justice system, Mark has been in prison for the past 30 years. He was originally given a life sentence with a seven-year tariff (ie. the minimum recommended sentence).
Now Mark is no trouble-maker; by and large, he’d kept his head down and done his time and had few ‘nickings’ (official prison reprimands) on his record. Yet somehow, the system has allowed him to serve 23 years over his recommended sentence.
Mark’s problems aren’t with rehabilitation or re-offending behaviour, his problems are due almost in total to the very poor state of his mental health and institutionalisation brought on by three decades of incarceration. He is a prolific self harmer and his whole body is a lattice work of scar tissue. He also has a history of attempted suicide.
Mark was living in the cell next door to mine and it was clear from the first night that the poor lad was having trouble keeping the crazy inside his head. The rest of us on the wing had no choice but to tune in Mark’s late night broadcasts. Random snatches like this: “Fuck off, I’m no midget, my name’s Rollocks the bollocks and I likes me spoods!”
Now, that could be quite funny when you hear it once or twice but after two hours in the dead of night, it does get old. And a lot of the other stuff he was coming out with was pretty unpleasant. But I knew it was not something that he could control, it was just gibberish and garbled memories that were gushing out of his mouth like a torrent from a busted water main.
He’s only little and all, barely hitting five foot. A lot of the wing’s ‘amateur psychologists’ put it all down to Short Angry Man Syndrome but because Mark used to confide me in a lot, I knew the problems were probably a bit more deep-seated than that. I’m no shrink but I’d stick my neck out nevertheless and say that most of his problems stemmed from his prolonged imprisonment with little or no help from the authorities.
There was a constant drone of voices in his head he told me, they never really went away, he said. Sometimes they were louder, sometimes quieter but they were nearly always there. Not for the first time, I was presented with the prisoner’s dilemma after he told me one evening that he wanted to end it all.
And, like the Game Theory prisoner’s dilemma, my decision hinged on whether or not to talk. I could tell the officers but I ran the risk of being marked out as a grass. It didn’t take me long to make my decision.
Fuck the prison code. The way I saw it, there were more rats on two legs walking around our wing than there were four-legged fuckers outside the wire.
I went down to the office and told one of the screws of my concerns after Mark’s threats to do himself in. The prison officer barely looked up from his Daily Star; “Mark’s full of shit,” he muttered, “He never actually goes through with it.” (There’s that ‘duty of care’ I was talking about)
It was a habit of mine during bang-up to rap on the wall between my cell and Mark’s so I could get him to come to the window for a chat. One afternoon, not long after I’d voiced my concerns to the officers on the wing, I banged on the wall as usual but this time, got no response. I banged again a couple of times, still nothing. By now I was anxious and began pressing my emergency bell.
After a good ten minutes and still no sign of the lazy bastards, I began kicking and screaming, and hammering on my cell door. About half an hour later a fat screw (let’s call him Officer Doofus) lumbered up to door and scowled through the spyhole. “What?!” Doofus asked, surly, like I’d just disturbed him from his fifth wank of the shift or something equally important.
I pleaded with him to check on Mark next door. He left my cell and about five seconds later is when all hell broke loose on our wing; alarm bells and sirens, right left and centre.
Apparently Mark was discovered turning blue and swinging from the window on the end of a noose of cut-up bed-sheet. They all came running then. Thank God one of them was able to do CPR. Mark was revived and taken to hospital. And then, only about 23 years late, the prison authorities finally decided to section him under the Mental Health Act. By all accounts, he is now doing well and receiving the medical help he requires.
What does it really say about our prison and mental health regimes if Mark is one of the lucky ones?
(Guy Linott is the assumed name of a prisoner serving life and maintaining his innocence in a high security British jail. His work is sourced and edited by Seán Flynn, editor of The Rusty Wire Service)
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