Care with conviction

Care with conviction
The Herald Scotland, by Stephen Naysmith
03.07.12

It has the feel of a a youth centre, or a children’s unit – partly because many of the men here are rather like little boys.

A cross, perhaps, between that and a clinic.

It seems strange to find a daycare centre in the middle of one of the UK’s most notorious jails. But that is exactly what Barlinnie has had for the last three years, since its old medical centre was gutted by fire and reopened to address mental health concerns in the prison.

With the daily population of the prison sitting at around 1200, governor Derek McGill says as many as 250 or 260 of those men could be classed as having mental health problems.

Many are vulnerable and there are already 60 permanent cells for vulnerable prisoners in D Hall South, refurbished and repurposed as a High Dependency Unit, smaller and less threatening than the other four-storied Victorian prison buildings.

But whether in D Hall or in the mainstream population, prisoners with mental health issues are liable to suffer and cause problems if kept in their cells for lengthy periods. The risk of violence to other prisoners or staff is a concern, as are problems such as prisoners smashing TVs, or self-harming – or both, as in the case of one former inmate who repeatedly broke the screen of his television and used the glass to cut himself.

So significant is the problem the daycare centre was established, to ensure time out of cells for the most vulnerable, who are transferred daily to the two-storey building which provides medical checks on new arrivals in the ground floor and activities in the rooms above.

This includes many of the pet hates of tabloids angered by ‘cushy’ prison conditions. Here, prisoners are able to take part in yoga sessions, get hand massages, play pool, use computers or play the Xbox.

The outside organisation Theatre Nemo held a remarkable demonstration of some of the creative work it has done with prisoners in the centre recently, which included a visceral demonstration of Japanese Taiko Drumming, from prisoners who learned the skill in a matter of weeks.

Governor Derek McGill is aware of the criticisms. But such sessions help restore self-esteem and social functioning, he says. "Yoga, art and drama can help change behaviour. I see it as part of our rehabilitation role. The two guys playing the Xbox couldn’t speak to anyone two months ago. Some of these men wouldn’t have thought they had the mental capacity to Taiko drum. If we don’t try and change them, nobody else does. You have to put them back out at the end of their sentence, and sometimes you think: ‘at least he stands a chance now’."

It isn’t everyone with mental health problems who benefits from a prison sentence, of course. And Mr McGill says it is important to acknowledge these prisoners have all offended.

"They have committed offences, but lots of them have committed low level offences," he explains. He adds the police have got better at handling mental health issues, but people with such problems readily end up locked up on bail for public order offences.

Gary McKechnie, residential custody officer, points out the numbers attending the daycare centre at any given time. During a morning session, there may be half a dozen people in yoga, some seeing a nurse from the Keep Well project, more playing pool or learning domestic skills such as how to cook or use a washing machine. There are one-to-one personal development sessions (counselling, though many prisoners would run a mile if it was called that).

The staff, with 66 years of prison service experience between them, do not seem like traditional prison officers. Mr McKechnie talks of the number of prisoners who have been diagnosed as autistic, or with other mental health issues for the first time ever while in jail. "It is a revelation to them. ‘My God, so these are illnesses’", he says.

Studies show anything between 30% and 90% of prisoners have mental health problems, with 10-20% suffering the most severe symptoms. In Barlinnie, some suffer from anxiety, and depression, many self-harm. Some are psychotic, or suffer from schizophrenia or personality disorders. Some have obsessive compulsive disorder. Some seem to be in denial.

"I can’t have things going dirty in the cell. I’m not OCD or anything," says David Robson. "There’s a mop and a brush, and a shower. But some boys just don’t do it. I can’t even have ash on the cell floor."

David, who grew up in care, has been in and out of jail for most of his life, for crimes such as housebreaking. He was part of the Theatre Nemo drumming team and attends the daycare centre regularly.

It’s not clear why, as he says he’s ‘more or less’ given up crime, come off drugs, and is keen to reestablish contact with his 16-year-old daughter. "It’s boring coming to jail, but I’m learning from it," he says. "You sit here watching the TV and think ‘this is boring. I could do this on the outside’. Jail has helped me."

Other prisoners are more up front about their issues. Chris McCourt, who ended up jailed for breach of the peace after he took a neighbour’s anti-psychotic pill, is clear that he needs help. He has suffered from epilepsy since he was 14, and thought the pill would substitute for his own medication, he claims, adding: "I tried to get help before I was sectioned, months ago. They said ‘it should be doctors that help you’. It is an easy call for the authorities to put people like me here."

Living in the D Hall High dependency unit, McCourt feels safer than in the mainstream jail. "It is not as fast as the bigger halls, but it is chaotic. Everybody’s got problems and the officers can only do so much. You hear people banging on doors, shouting and talking to themselves." He should really be in a hospital, he says, but in a hospital you don’t know when you will get out.

"Another prisoner, David Watson, adds: "People self-harm. I do it a lot. My mum recently passed away, and I’ve been suffering from depression. But I come over here and they listen to you and it helps."

On a wall, by the entrance, Gary McKechnie points out the number of referrals since the centre focused on mental health in 2006. Back then there were 5000 sessions a year, but now there are as many as three times that. There have been 79,634 consultations since 2006.

One recent addition to the armoury here is the Therapet service. It took one year to get through the health and safety negotiations to get a dog, Pepper, vising the jail regularly, Mr McKechnie says. "But we get 30 people up, just to see the dog. One guy was almost in tears. You think it’s something trivial, but he sat there all morning, just stroking the dog."

The bottom line, Mr McGill adds, is there is not enough mental health support in the community. "It is a bit sad they have got to come here to realise what their potential is."