It seems that barely a week goes by without an event in one of our country’s prisons making the headlines, whether that is one run by the state or by a private company.
A shortage of healthcare staff is often cited as a reason for poor healthcare provision in prisons and young offenders’ institutions. In a survey undertaken by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), half of healthcare professionals interviewed revealed that they believed the care they had delivered in shifts completed immediately before responding to the survey had been compromised due to staff shortages.
Reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Committee have highlighted their concerns about the mental and physical health of the prison population. This includes high incidences of suicide and self-harm, the social care needs of older prisoners, health risks arising from the prison environment, prisoner’s access to healthcare and the recruitment and training of the healthcare workforce in prisons.
Challenges continue to arise for the prison system from issues such as over-crowding and the introduction of new drugs and psychoactive substances causing violent reactions in prisoners.
In an attempt to address such issues, the Health and Social Care Committee has set up the Prison Healthcare Inquiry to explore the effectiveness of prisons and prison healthcare services in meeting the physical and mental health, and social care, needs of prisoners. The Government’s stated intention in setting up the Inquiry is that prisoners should experience the same level of healthcare as the general population.
As part of the Inquiry, the Committee has sought written evidence on the effectiveness of the oversight, commissioning and regulation of prisons and prison healthcare services in safeguarding and improving the health of prisoners.
A number of organisations, including the RCN and the Royal College of GPs have suggested that direct ring-fenced funding and resources for prison healthcare services is essential to protecting and developing a centrally directed multi-disciplinary healthcare workforce. An educational programme for both health and security staff working in prisons has also been suggested. It is hoped that if adopted, such measures will improve consistency in the delivery of healthcare to prisoners and overall outcomes.
Similarly, the RCN has also recommended ring-fencing funding to improve the pay of nurses working in prison settings employed by contractors delivering NHS services. At present, nurses can expect to receive a similar salary whether they work in the secure estate or elsewhere. This is perceived to be causing difficulties in attracting and retaining nursing staff in prisons. With the added inherent risks of working within in that environment, many nurses are simply choosing to work elsewhere.
An improvement to funding for prison healthcare staff ring-fencing would go some way to achieving the Government’s stated objective of delivering equality of healthcare for all; including healthcare to prisoners.
The Inquiry has not published any findings as yet but has received recommendations from a large number of interested bodies involved in this sector. BLM will report on future developments as and when they occur.
BLM represents prison healthcare providers in clinical negligence, personal injury claims and at inquest following adverse events within the secure estate. Should you have any queries in relation to this niche area of work, please feel free to contact us to discuss your legal needs further.
This article was authored by partner Chris Dexter and solicitor Rachel Barnes.