Any of your readers who read Dr Conor O’Neill’s article (Law Matters, November 16th) were doubtless shocked to realise that our prisons have become a kind of dumping ground for many with severe mental health problems, the treatment of which, as he rightly asserts, is not one of their functions. We have been campaigning for many years against the criminalisation of people who are homeless, who can very easily end up in prison after they become entangled with the criminal justice system because they suffer from a mental illness.
Indeed, it is inexcusable in a society that is supposed to be committed to the protection of every citizen’s rights that our courts are expected to act as proxies for mental health services in identifying mental illness, or be expected to arrange treatment, something we witness on a frighteningly regular basis.
However, it is very important to stress that homelessness is not synonymous with mental illness, and like any outsider in society, a person who is without a home can very easily be misunderstood and criminalised for many reasons. Nonetheless, the failure to provide proper community mental healthcare services means that the most vulnerable invariably end up before the courts when their failure to receive treatment leads to breaches of the law.
Closing psychiatric hospitals without providing adequate community care has resulted in many people becoming homeless over the years and, indeed, remaining so, and often ending up in prison before the care they need is provided. The criminalisation of the mentally ill person represents one of the most serious human rights issue confronting Ireland today, and we have shamefully failed our most vulnerable fellow citizens in this area, and we cannot allow that scandal to continue.
– Yours, etc,
Director and co-founder