Health chief backs nurses over lockdown

The Director General of NSW Health, Professor Debora Picone, has described the extended lockdown of mentally ill patients at Long Bay Prison Hospital as ‘not acceptable’ and expressed admiration for nurses’ stand against the lockdowns.

Prof. Picone, the first nurse to rise through the ranks to become Director-General, told the recent NSW Nurses’ Association Annual Conference: ‘The lockdowns are not acceptable. And it is up to me now to work this through with the Department of Corrective Services. I don’t support this decision at all.

‘I deeply admire … your stand on this issue,’ she added, referring to protests by forensic mental health nurses and the union against patients being locked in their cells for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week.

In April the lockdown was brought forward from 9pm to 3.45pm, cutting patient contact time by six and a half hours. Aside from a 6.30pm meal delivered to the cells, they are opened after lockdown only for visits by medical staff to give medication and attend emergencies.

In a letter to NSW Minister for Justice John Hatzistergos, NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes said the union viewed the early lockdown as a cost-cutting exercise, giving rise to serious concerns for the mental and physical well-being of patients and preventing nurses from giving adequate care.

Prof. Picone told the conference the extended lockdowns would not apply at the new ‘state of the art’ forensic hospital, soon to open in the grounds of the prison. ‘It is going to be in my view the best forensic hospital in the country,’ she said.

Prof. Picone’s remarks were supported by the then Health Minister Reba Meagher, who described the prison hospital as ‘Dickensian’.
Ms Meagher promised the new forensic hospital would deliver an ‘inspiring’ new model of care.

Answering a question from NSWNA councillor and Justice Health nurse Gary Clark, who called the lockdown policy ‘horrific’, Ms Meagher said:‘It brings a great deal of humanity to people in those circumstances … That is really a credit to many people along the way who have identified the sorts of issues that you have talked about and believe that people are entitled to a greater degree of humanity and compassion while they are incarcerated.’

‘Access to patients is limited,’ Gary said. ‘Nurses actually have to wait for Corrective Services officers to come in and open doors so you can give medication, so you can attend to patients in emergencies. Where else would this system be acceptable?

‘At the moment, my colleagues tell me that there is a three-day, 24-hour lock-in (during a recent prison officers’ strike.). That is just unconscionable.’

For more on the Long Bay lockdown, see ‘Lockdown torments mental health patients’, The Lamp, August 2008.

As The Lamp went to print, the NSW Government approached NSW Health to transfer the running of Long Bay Hospital to Justice Health. This is a big win for nurses working in Long Bay Hospital and their patients who have been locked away from routine care for 18-hours per day. Negotiations between Justice Health and the NSWNA will continue and a feasibility study will identify the budgetary needs for the delivery of appropriate nursing care.