Lockdown torments mental health patients


Mental health nurses at Long Bay have serious concerns about the welfare of their patients following the lockdown at the prison’s hospital.

The extended lockdown of forensic patients at Long Bay Prison Hospital is preventing mental health nurses from discharging their duty-of-care and exacerbating patients’ conditions, according to nurses.

NSWNA member Ray Gregory said the draconian measures were having a huge impact on nurses’ ability to deliver adequate treatment.

‘You can’t care for patients through closed doors. Locking them in for so long, when many suffer from auditory hallucinations and internal voices, is particularly cruel,’ the psychiatric nurse said.

Since early April, forensic patients at the prison’s hospital have had the time out of their cells almost halved, leaving them locked in isolation for up to 18 hours a day. Previously prisoners were allowed out till 9pm but now are locked back in at 3.45pm.

‘The lockdown has been detrimental to nurses’ morale, especially on the afternoon shift when they have to sit around just watching their patients on CCTV screens, shouting through windows, banging on doors and banging their heads against the wall,’ Ray said.

‘It’s the sheer frustration at being locked in for so long. It is harsh enough on the main prison population let alone somebody suffering from a mental illness.’

Ray believes it is a cost cutting exercise following reports that the Department of Corrective Services (DCS) had cut 28 prison officer positions at the prison hospital.

The Assistant Commissioner of Corrective Services Luke Grant told the ABC last month that the decision was ‘not based entirely on economic rationale’ but that ‘high levels of agitation and adverse incidents occurring in the afternoons’, and surveys alleging some prisoners preferred the ‘quiet time’ in their cells, had led to the decision.

Ray said nurses were still collecting and collating data but anecdotal evidence so far clearly indicated an increase in incidents especially at lock-in and let-out times. The Sydney Morning Herald reported two suicide attempts in April alone.

‘We do categorise information differently to the DCS but they think our job is just giving out medication when that is just a small part of mental health treatment. Patients need social interaction and regular assessment. We need to reality-base with patients so they can check in, download and be reassured. Isolation can be terrifying for them.

‘Basically we are impeded from delivering care. There has been a large increase in PRN prescriptions, particularly sedatives, which are basically like chemical truncheons.

‘These patients are in the highest risk category of self-harm and suicide and it can take over an hour to get access to a cell at lockdown.

We have to make a case to the authorities, who must deem it a “critical intervention”, and then three officers have to attend, usually from other wards.

‘Nurses are extremely frustrated watching their patients deteriorating. Some of them have been treating the same patients for years.

‘We had agreed with the Attorney General, the DCS and Justice Health to meet regularly to monitor conditions but the DCS has said it now sees no point in continuing the walk-arounds as “the critics’ predictions had not materialised” – meaning no one has died,’ said Ray.