In this post, Laura reviews the Centre for Criminology’s Crime and Mental Health: Vulnerability and Resilience in the Face of Trauma Conference, held on 15 March 2016.

At least 95% of young people aged 16-20 years in young offender institutions have at least one mental disorder.

Thirty-five children have died in penal institutions since 1990.

In a study of near-lethal suicide attempts in prisons, all female cases and 97% of male cases had at least one psychiatric disorder.

These statistics paint a dismal picture of the state of mental health in all ages and all corners of the criminal justice system. On 15 March 2016, academics, practitioners, charity workers, and other interested parties joined together for a multi-disciplinary conference on crime and mental health in criminal justice, as part of the Centre for Criminology’s 50th anniversary event series and generously funded by Green Templeton College. The conference organisation was led by the Centre’s Professor Carolyn Hoyle and Dr Rachel Condry who gave the opening and closing addresses, respectively.

The day kicked off with a plenary presentation by Sarah Brennan from Young Minds who discussed the need for more consistent and collaborative relationships between mental health services for youths in the criminal justice system. Based on a recent study conducted by Young Minds, which revealed the haphazard nature of helping young people in the criminal justice system with mental health needs, Ms Brennan reiterated that solutions are not just the responsibility of youth workers and not just about the criminal justice system, but about all these different aspects working together to achieve holistic aims.

In the first panel session we heard from Jasmina Arnez, Dr Laura Janes, and Alison Thorne. Ms Arnez, a DPhil candidate in Criminology here at the University of Oxford, shared with us her research on youth deviance, parenting, and social class. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with practitioners working with young people ‘at risk’ of offending, she provided an interesting perspective highlighting the role that class plays in the interactions between these institutions and the young people and their parents. Ms Arnez noted that in contrast to other societies, practitioners in England are unwilling to openly discuss the notion of social class, whilst at the same time exacerbating these social vulnerabilities in their work.

The next panellist, Dr Janes, the Legal Director for the Howard League for Penal Reform, presented, through powerful narratives, the experiences of children in custody who often have multiple complex needs and tend to slip through the cracks in obtaining support. Whilst some children with poor mental health remain undiagnosed in incarceration, recognised only when it’s too late, others appear to cope well in prison but find it challenging to live on the outside. Those on indeterminate sentences are traumatised by the indefinite and uncertain nature of their sentence. In light of these horrific stories, Dr Janes proposed some ideas for reform: removing the power of magistrates to impose prison sentences, reducing the incarceration of young people, and ensuring proper parole board-like assessments before sentencing rather than when it’s too late.

Ms Thorne, the project lead of Together Charity, works with 16-24 year olds at risk of (or currently) offending who are overusing emergency services. She shared the aims and nature of the organisation which deals with young people experiencing trauma, intergenerational exclusion, substance misuse, homelessness, autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities. Through the provision of psychologically informed support, the project aims to reduce police or emergency service contact, increase the young person’s well-being and resilience, provide them with techniques to better manage their behaviour, reduce exclusion, and feed into local strategic responses.

The afternoon panel consisted of Marie Tidball, a DPhil candidate in Criminology at the University of Oxford, Morwenna Bennallick, a postgraduate researcher for Royal Holloway and the Prisoners Education Trust, and Dr Sarah Turnbull, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology.

Ms Tidball provided us with a snapshot of her research on the governance of defendants with autism and presented a critical evaluation problematizing the conceptualisation of ‘vulnerability.’ Often these groups are categorised under either mental health provisions or criminal justice concepts of ‘risk’ or ‘dangerousness,’ rather than conceptualising them as individuals with complex multiple needs. In this way, defendants with autism also fall through the cracks in accessing services.

Ms Bennallick discussed education provision in prison, 80% of which is targeted below GSCE level. The Prison Education Trust encourages positive learning cultures in prisons through the provision of grants to help prisoners achieve education goals, and more recently, encouraging prisons to implement positive education initiatives. The latter initiative, aimed at reaching out to the ‘hard to reach,’ welcomed suggestions from its participants which included ‘learning councils,’ ‘education and skill champions’ for more horizontal communication, and one women’s prison proposed a re-branding of its whole education department, which had originally targeted its resources at men. While in some prisons these projects were unable to get off the ground, others implemented their projects successfully and were praised by the Prison Education Trust as ‘visionaries and enthusiasts.’

Dr Turnbull presented her research on life in immigration detention in the United Kingdom, focusing on issues around belonging and identity with high levels of depression particularly amongst women, asylum seekers, and those suffering health problems. The uncertainty of its duration, the fear of removal, isolation, and pre-existing vulnerabilities such as pregnancy and health needs all contribute to poor mental health amongst detainees. Manifested through depression and anxiety, this suffering extends far beyond release.

The day ended with a fascinating presentation by Prof Keith Hawton, Centre for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford, and Prof Seena Fazel, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, on their recent research into near-lethal suicide attempts amongst prisoners in England and Wales between 2004 and 2009. Such attempts are a common and repetitive occurrence in prisons, particularly by women. Prisoners who attempt suicide are more likely than non-attempting prisoners to have: prior convictions, been convicted of a violent offence, spent less time in prison particularly in the current prison, and a history of self-harm and attempts and/or psychiatric treatment. They are more likely to experience depression, psychosis, and anxiety often with more than two diagnoses. Over half of the female cases had PTSD, often as a result of being victim of violence (including sexual abuse). This population also had higher levels of aggression, impulsivity, hostility, hopelessness, and childhood trauma, and lower levels of self-esteem and social support, when compared to control prisoners. Prof Hawton and Prof Fazel’s research highlights the importance of ongoing screening and assessing risk after particular life events such as deaths of family members or moving prisons rather than only at the start and end of sentence. The prevalence of depression, personality disorder, and PTSD is higher in prisons than in the general population and this incidence doesn’t match the amount spent on prison mental health care (according to a report by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health).

It was a successful day of discussion and knowledge sharing, considering different situations of compounded disadvantage and how we might reduce the impact of adverse life events to build resilience and improve mental health in the context of criminal justice. The importance of early intervention was a common theme, particularly in relation to the provision of supports before certain crisis points in the life cycle. When we step back and look at such trajectories with a more objective lens, the common themes amongst the UK’s most vulnerable is striking, and can be a useful tool in forming action points for the future.

You can also read the Storify of the conference here!

Click here to learn more about our 50th anniversary celebrations, including upcoming events such as our summer conference, Contemporary Dilemmas in Criminal Justice, on 4 June 2016!