Improving mental health support must be at the heart of the Government’s plans for prisons and requires concerted action from the NHS, the prison service and probation providers, Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes said today.

Responding to a report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Sarah Hughes said: “Poor mental health is endemic among the prison population. Today’s report shines an important spotlight on the pressing need for action to improve support for prisoners’ mental health and to send fewer people with mental health problems to prison in the first place.

“We support the Committee’s call for urgent action to address staffing levels in prisons. This is vital to ensure prisoners can spend time out of their cells and attend health appointments. It is vital that all of those staff receive training and ongoing support to recognise when a prisoner needs help for their mental health and how to avoid making it worse. The prison service must also attend to the wellbeing of its own staff, many of whom bear witness to traumatic events at work.

Poor mental health is endemic among the prison population. Today’s report shines an spotlight on the pressing need to send fewer people with mental health problems to prison in the first place.

“We also support the Committee’s call for faster transfers to hospital for prisoners needing urgent mental health care. Waiting for more than 14 days for a bed in a crisis is unacceptable. Speeding up transfers will require the successful implementation of the NHS’s plans to remove blockages from secure mental health services that mean too many people spend longer than they need to in hospital for lack of alternatives in the community.

“The report also points to the need for better coordination between the NHS and HM Prison and Probation Service throughout the criminal justice system to identify and meet people’s needs more quickly. The expansion of Liaison and Diversion services in police stations and courts is a vital starting point. They should help ensure that vulnerable people are identified more quickly and where possible diverted from custody. This must be coupled with making greater use of community sentences and improving mental health support to those in contact with probation.

Waiting for more than 14 days for a bed in a crisis is unacceptable.

“Today’s report underlines the need for systemic change in the criminal justice system. Prisons need to give a far bigger priority to wellbeing, with easy access to mental health support for every prisoner who needs it. By taking concerted action now to implement the Committee’s recommendations, the Government can save people’s lives.”