HALF of Northern Ireland's prisoners are being prescribed prescription drugs to treat mental health illnesses, it has emerged.
Antedepressants and anti-psychosis medications are being used by more than 50 per cent of inmates at Magheraberry and Magilligan jails while 49 per cent of young offenders at Hydebank are receiving drug treatment.
There are almost 1,450 people currently imprisoned across the three jails, of which just 48 are women.
The development comes more than a decade after a major independent report castigated prison bosses over failings in their care of vulnerable inmates and "fundamental structural weaknesses" in how healthcare staff were managed.
Professor Roy McClelland's review followed six suicides at Maghaberry and Magilligan over a two-year period. The Irish News later revealed that calls to urgently double the number of psychiatric nurses at Hydebank failed, with just three staff for 240 inmates.
While the South Eastern Health Trust took over responsibility for prison healthcare in 2008, a report by the Criminal Justice Inspection team last month warned that mental health provision at Magheraberry jail – the north's biggest prison - had deteriorated due to staff shortages.
The crisis last night sparked a plea from the chair of a Stormont watchdog committee to overhaul the treatment of mentally ill people who are jailed for minor offences.
Alastair Ross, a DUP Assembly member for north Antrim, pointed to the Scottish and American models of so-called 'drug courts' where addicts are given monitored intensive rehabilitation programmes to get clean.
Mr Ross obtained the latest figures on prescription drugs through a written Assembly question to health minister, Simon Hamilton.
"Far too many people are ending up in prison when they should be in mental health facilities or addiction units," he said.
"I think we need an alternative approach given that half of our prison population are on some type of drug for mental health conditions. In the 1990's in Glasgow the heroin problem had become so bad that many convicted addicts were still getting their drugs in prison and then coming out to reoffend again. New courts were set up which had rehab and rehabilitation orders for addicts who committed low-level, non-violent offences.
"Similar models have been introduced in New York and Texas and have been hugely successful. I think it is something we need to seriously look at - as my view is that we too often look for criminal justice responses to low-level offences when healthcare treatment could be much more appropriate."