Mental patients filling prisons: Chaplain

A Melbourne prison chaplain, Fr Joe Caddy, has called on the Government to redirect some money from its mental health budget to new initiatives and reform of prisons, which he says are becoming institutions for mentally ill people.

Fr Caddy, who chairs Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) and has been chaplain to Melbourne's men's prisons for five years, says "we are now seeing the re-institutionalisation of mentally ill people into prisons".

He estimates that up to 80 per cent of the inmates he deals with have mental health issues that require treatment - ranging from anxiety and depression through to schizophrenia.

Fr Caddy says that prisons are part of the criminal justice system which aims principally to punish and reform criminals and are not part of the health system which "seeks, where it can, to manage illness and provide healing".

The prison chaplain says the fact that so many mentally ill people find themselves in the criminal justice system not equipped to deal with them, "is an indictment on our society."

"Certainly people with mental health problems who are ignored in the community can end up being a danger to themselves as well as to others," he said.

"By putting them into prison, however, the safety of the community is further compromised as these very unwell people establish criminal contacts and learn criminal behaviours," Fr Caddy added.

Fr Caddy believes there are significant opportunities to improve the plight of mentally ill people in the community.

"The answer is to provide an adequate acute care and community based mental health system outside the criminal justice system."

He said the worthy attempt to deinstitutionalise people suffering from mental illness a few decades ago has failed because there was a lack of ongoing community-based support programs for these people.

"The success of that strategy has depended on the ongoing provision of adequate supports in the community," he said.

"There's a clear need for better access to hospital and community services for people in the community who experience mental illness," he said.

"When people with mental illness do end up before the courts judges need access to a greater range of orders and treatment options within the health system rather than the corrections system.

"Given that this is not currently the reality and that such a high proportion of people in prisons are suffering from mental illness, there's a need for case managers and greater access to psychologists and GPs and specialists within the corrections system.

"On release, these people require extra support to negotiate the maze that is our public health system. They also need help to comply with medication and to tend to everyday human requirements of friendship, accommodation and appropriate work," Fr Caddy said.

Mentally Ill People Should Not Be Prisoners (CSSA Media Release, 17/9/06)
Mentally ill filling prisons: chaplain (Sunday Mail, 17/9/06)
Prisons the new mental asylums: priest (The Age, 19/9/06)
Prisons the new mental asylums: priest (Sydney Morning Herald, 19/9/06)

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Catholic Social Services Australia

18 Sep 2006