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Psychiatric nursing in prison: the state of the art?


Mark Polczyk-Przybyla The Audit Commission, 1 Vinlent Square, London SW1P 2PN. E-mail:


Psychiatric nursing in prison: the state of the art?

Psychiatric nursing in prisons has received criticism from within and outside the profession in recent years. In England and Wales this amongst other issues has prompted a review of forensic health care by the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery & Health Visiting (UKCC). The status of forensic psychiatric nursing as a specialty has also been disputed in the literature and the role of nurses working in this field is seen by some to be more about social control than caring. These arguments are set in the present situation of increasing numbers of mentally ill individuals in the prison system and a crisis in the availability of beds in secure units, a situation that is paralleled throughout the western world. The standard expected of health care services in prisons is equivalence with the service the public receives from the National Health Service (NHS). The number of prisoners needing transfer to hospital has increased during the last decade, resulting in competition for a limited number of suitable beds. The effect on health care centres (HCCs) in English prisons is that they now must provide long-term care for seriously mentally ill prisoners. This paper outlines the development of British psychiatric services in prisons. It then describes the HCC in Her Majesty’s prison (HMP) Belmarsh and reports on recent radical changes in the management structure of this service. The aim of these changes is to produce a clinical environment in which psychiatric nurses can deliver high quality care in an area beset with difficulties for clinicians and managers and to further progress towards the goal of equivalence. These advances have been achieved through a shift of emphasis in management structure that increases the number of clinical posts and minimizes administrative and security-based responsibilities held by clinical grades. We conclude that although external contracts are necessary, much can be achieved through internal review and changes in policy.