Transfer to a psychiatric hospital of prisoners who need inpatient treatment for a mental disorder is an important part of prison healthcare in the UK. It is an essential factor in ensuring the principle of equivalence in the treatment of prisoners. In England and Wales, delays in transferring unwell prisoners to hospital were identified by the 2009 Bradley Report. There has been no subsequent systematic review of progress in so doing nor a corresponding appraisal of transfer arrangements in other parts of the world.
To conduct a systematic review of international literature about transfers of mentally unwell individuals from prison to hospital for the treatment of mental disorder since 2009.
Eight databases were searched for data-based publications using terms for prison and transfer to hospital from 1 January 2009 to 4 August 2022. Inclusion criteria limited transfer to arrangements for pre-trial and sentenced prisoners going to a health service hospital, excluding hospital orders made on the conclusion of criminal hearing.
In England, four articles were identified, all showing that transfer times remain considerably longer than the national targets of 14 days (range, 14 days to >9 months); one study from Scotland found shorter mean transfer times, but more patients had been transferred to psychiatric intensive care units than to secure forensic hospitals. There were only two studies that investigated prison to hospital transfers for mental disorder from outside the UK and only one reported time-to-transfer data.
Findings from this literature review highlight failures to resolve transfer delays in England and provide little evidence about the problem elsewhere. Given the lack of data, it is unclear whether other countries do not have this problem or simply that there has been no research interest in it. A possible confounding factor here is that, in some countries, all treatment for prisoners’ mental disorders occurs in prison. However, the principle that prisons are not hospitals seems important when people need inpatient care. Prospective, longitudinal cohort studies are urgently needed to map transfer times and outcomes.