A Summary of Mental Health within Corrections

Posted On May 13, 2021

On the 12th of May, the Criminology Students’ Association (CSA), in collaboration with the Malta Health Students’ Association (MHSA), held a webinar exploring mental health within correctional facilities. The purpose of this conference was to shed light on the fact that many individuals experience mental disorders in such environments, demonstrating anxiety, rage and depression. The speakers who took part in this event were Gail Debono, a forensic psychologist at the ‘Malta Correctional Services Agency’ and Mark Pellicano, a children’s services manager at ‘Fondazzjoni Sebh’; lecturer and Counsellor at Richmond Foundation.

Apart from safeguarding the general public, the objective of correctional facilities is to help the individual reform. Namely, this involves helping the inmate understand who he/she is and how they can act in a way to benefit himself and others.

When inmates first enter the prison system, they are screened for any existing mental illness and any other needs that might be present. Subsequently, care-plan coordinators also assess inmates for their risk and needs. If necessary, inmates are referred to psychiatric assistance.

If the inmate presents with a mental illness on arrival, they are immediately referred to psychological or psychiatric services as appropriate. Inmates are continuously monitored, and may be referred for such assistance by themselves, and professionals observing behaviour indicative of mental illness, such as doctors, social workers and correctional officers. In fact, officers receive training on recognising symptoms of mental illness in inmates, as well as themselves, and performing mental health first aid when needed. Often the mental health issue is associated with other issues, such as poor physical health, poor life skills, substance abuse, and low level of education. Therefore, one cannot treat mental health on its own, yet as a holistic approach.

Locally, the most common mental health issues are depression; anxiety; drug-use; and deep-seated trauma. In addition, personality disorders may also be present, which may be hard to diagnose and treat, leading to frequent under-diagnosis. With substance use, many individuals are incarcerated directly due to the drugs. Interestingly enough, these would be individuals who without drugs would not typically partake in crime, and are only in prison to fund their addiction. The presence of such mental health issues may create an environment which may negatively impact one’s treatment, and may set-back one’s progress. Moreover, external influences such as partners moving on; losing their autonomy; and not being able to communicate with family, all confound treatment progress.

The speakers also indicated how a dedicated mental health court would benefit both the society and the inmate, who would receive better treatment. This would therefore reduce re-incarceration and better integration into society upon release.

In Malta, mentoring programs are not currently present. However, what often occurs is that older inmates tend to take the younger inmates under their wing, and encourage them to avoid following in their footsteps. One point which was indicated by the speakers was how inmates tend to be quite empathic and tend to help one another, especially those suffering from a mental illness. Several studies have shown that sharing cells, leads to a reduction in suicide attempts. Unfortunately, a low percentage of inmates continue therapy once released. However, the vast majority of inmates who need therapy in corrections, actually do partake in treatment. Better continuity of care should be implemented locally, which would increase the number of inmates continuing therapy post-release.

It is important to note that mental illness does not discriminate, and is found in all age groups within correctional facilities. However, younger generations tend to accept the concept of mental illness more, and it is gradually becoming less of a taboo.

Finally, with regards to children being involved, the mental health of both the incarcerated parents and their children must be thoroughly examined. In such cases, the more vulnerable individual, typically the child, must be preferentially supported, with the best interests of all involved.

To conclude, prior to being released, a great deal of work with inmates is done, in order to reach the objectives of the correctional facilities and rehabilitate individuals for a better future and reintegration.

To view the full discussion, click here.

Written by Robert Pisani


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