Mental Illness in Irish Prisoners: Psychiatric Morbidity in Sentenced, Remanded and Newly Committed Prisoners (Kennedy et al., 2005) was the first systematic and representative survey of mental health in the Irish Prison population, using standardised research diagnostic methods.
The research found that drugs and alcohol dependence and harmful use were by far the most common problems in prisons, present in between 61% and 79% of prisoners. Typically, prisoners were using multiple intoxicants, including alcohol, benzodiazepines, opiates, cannabis and stimulants. For all mental illnesses combined, rates ranged from 16% of male committals to 27% of sentenced men, while in women committed to prison the rate was 41%, with 60% of sentenced women having a mental illness.
The research estimated that 3.7% of male committals, 7.5% of men on remand, 2.7% of sentenced men and 5.4% of female prisoners should be diverted to psychiatric services, while as many as 20% of male committals and 32% of female committals needed to be seen by a psychiatrist. This would require approximately 376 transfers from prison to hospital per annum, and between 122 and 157 extra secure psychiatric beds, in addition to extra mental health in-reach clinics.
Mapping the geographic origins of prisoners showed that urban districts with high scores for economic deprivation were over-represented, though rural deprived districts did not have the same problem. Dublin accounted for 41% of prison committals, compared to 31% expected for the population.
Since this 2005 publication, there has yet to be another representative survey of mental health in the Irish Prison population. There is an excess of people with mental illnesses in Irish prisons, and a dearth of comprehensive research in the area. There is an urgent need for measures to correct this, including legal structures and procedures for diversion of the mentally ill from the criminal justice system.