Beyond mere ‘maintenance’: what people experiencing multiple disadvantage need from the criminal justice system

How does multiple disadvantage intersect with criminal justice involvement, and what can be done to prevent people with multiple health and social needs from being pushed into the cycle of crisis and crime? In this piece, Tony, a member of the National Expert Citizens Group, discusses how the criminal justice system often fails people whose needs go unmet, drawing on his lived and professional experience and sharing his solution for change.

The issues around the lack of adequate support for people experiencing multiple disadvantage within the justice system are really important to me – not only because I have experienced these first-hand, but because I am also now working with people in similar situations to help make things better for them. Multiple disadvantage is when someone experiences the intersection of two or more of the following issues: mental-ill health, homelessness, addiction of any kind, going through the justice system, and also any form of gender-based violence or abuse. Sadly, it is an issue that is often neglected and misunderstood, even more so in the criminal justice system.

For someone who already experiences multiple disadvantage, the prison environment and wider criminal justice system create immense challenges. Within the system, there is a clear lack of understanding demonstrated by staff. Often those with mental health issues are treated as disruptive or troublesome and sanction or punishment is seen as the most appropriate way to ‘deal’ with them. Access to medical support for those suffering from substance dependency is protracted and very limited. I know from my conversations with drug and alcohol users that, for many, the one thing they are looking forward to on release is a drink or ‘a smoke’ – not so much as a reward but as an escape. This speaks volumes to the fact that, instead of receiving the help needed to move away from problems with drugs or alcohol while in prison, what they received was little more than ‘maintenance’ treatment.

Does trauma-informed practice exist within the system? I don’t think it does. My own experience leads me to believe that, for whatever reason, the overriding objective of interventions is to provide a means of ‘maintenance’ until release. For example, I was prescribed antidepressants and told to just keep taking them until I was released, then speak to my doctor who could “help with more personal treatments”. I have also known many individuals who have been prescribed methadone with no reduction programme or psychological support. But this does nothing to address the root causes of someone’s problems with drugs and alcohol or with their mental health.

I have seen the effects prison has on people who are experiencing multiple disadvantage from both sides, during my time in prison and lately working with ex-offenders. I have experienced the re-traumatisation that occurs when someone is ‘abandoned’ without any kind of support or guidance during the majority of my prison sentence, and I have seen too many people take their own lives as a result of hopelessness, frustration and isolation. These are not isolated issues. The lack of support with multiple disadvantage is a system-wide problem which contributes to increasing prison populations, difficulties in resettlement, increased reoffending and unnecessary drains on public finances.

Locking people up can and does, for many, cause irreparable damage to both the person in prison and to their families. The ongoing political initiatives to create more prison places and to increase sentences will perhaps be justifiable to those who think that people who commit crimes should only suffer harsh consequences. But I know from experience that this will inevitably compound the problem unless significant changes are made. Putting more people in prison, for longer periods of time, will only lead to more broken families, more mental health problems, increased self-harm and suicide, higher societal costs and the potential for higher reoffending rates.

There is no magic wand answer to the complications and vagaries of the journey through the justice system. However, one doesn’t need to look far to find practical changes that could make a significant difference to the system. First, we need to ensure that every possible alternative is considered before imposing any kind of ‘short’ prison sentence. Incarceration should always be the very last resort. When a custodial sentence is the only option, then a thorough assessment of mental health needs and access to appropriate resources must be made available at every step of the way, from pre-sentence to prison, to resettlement. But support shouldn’t stop at the prison door. It is essential we prioritise continuity of care and treatment from day one – so that people can still get treatment and support in the community, rather than being left to their own devices. Realistic post-prison resettlement work that looks at all the different needs of the person and ensures they have access to appropriate support in the community ahead of time, rather than mere signposting only once they have been released, is part of the solution too.

I’m not sure that this wish list would entirely fix a broken system, but I hope it will. A change of attitude towards the purpose of the criminal justice system is needed in order to see real improvements. Current protocols that are only concerned with ‘warehousing’ offenders for the majority of their sentences, then overloading people in prison with information right at the end of the sentence, do nothing to help them turn their lives around. I know these issues are incredibly complex and politically sensitive but that shouldn’t mean we can’t have some impact. I hope that my story will have, at least, sparked some meaningful ideas and discussions among readers, especially resonating with those of you who have lived experience. Our narratives carry significant power, and together, we can drive impactful change.

The National Expert Citizens Group (NECG) acts as a representative group for people facing multiple disadvantage, to make sure those with lived experience are able to shape the systems and services that directly affect them. If you have lived experience of multiple disadvantage, you could join the NECG and campaign for change too! Click here for more information.