Patients or prisoners? Late back or escaped?

25 Feb

The Great Escape film poster

Have you ever been an “escaped prisoner”? Or, to be more specific, have you ever been in a mental health hospital and been more than half an hour late back from leave? I’ve done the latter. And, according to last night’s BBC London News lead story, these two are the same thing.

Yesterday, as I was working on the computer, I had the BBC on in the background. My ears pricked up when I heard that a story on a mental health unit would lead the news that night. But not for a good reason. Of course, it was a story about mental health and violent crime. I tuned into the news bulletin on iPlayer later on. And it was worse than I thought.

The story was about patients at the John Howard Centre, a mental health hospital in London. A request under the Freedom of Information Act had revealed that patients had been recorded as being over 30 minutes late back from leave over 200 times in the past 13 years. Patients coming back late to their ward? Not that interesting a story, you’d think.

That is until you replace the words “late back” with “escaped” and “patients” with “prisoners”. BBC journalist Jean MacKenzie had translated that into a report that over two hundred prisoners had escaped.

For extra frisson, MacKenzie delivered her piece to camera outside the high chain link fence surrounding the centre (a medium secure unit), and the story was illustrated with the unsmiling photograph of one such “escaped prisoner”, who had been convicted of murder. The message to the public? Behind these high security fences is a seething mass of unpredictable and potentially dangerous prisoners; and two hundred violent, deranged prisoners have escaped and are loose on the streets of London.

Somewhat different to the picture revealed by the Freedom of Information Act request. But far more lively for the evening news audiences, playing, as it did, to stereotypes and prejudices linking mental health and violent crime.

The way this story was reported, I would once have been recorded as an “escaped prisoner”. Who’d have thought it? When I was sectioned, I was once late back from leave. Why? Because I’d been at the funfair with my neighbour and her children (one in a pushchair) having been told by one nurse before we’d left for my two hours leave that I had half an hour’s leeway so long as I rang to let them know. We spent a wonderful time on the dodgems and other fairground rides and still had tokens left to spend when I noticed the time and realised I’d be back late unless we left immediately. I rang the ward right away, as I’d been told to do. This time, unfortunately, I got through to another nurse – the ward’s enforcer – who said no, I had to be back on time or I’d be reported to the consultant. I looked at my neighbour, she looked at me, we grabbed the children and ran all the way to the hospital. The elder child was dragged, howling with disappointment and hunger; the younger one pushed at high speed in the pushchair. I was delivered back to the ward just after the 30 minutes leeway had expired. Some “escaped prisoner”.

Here are some of the responses of the lovely twitter people:

Clairus (@Hellsbell) tweeted BBC London News to say:

“Why did Jean MacKenzie call mental health patients late back from leave “prisoners” who’d “escaped”?” apology needed!

Doris (@isthismental) did the same, but added more detail:

“Shocking repeated error BBC London News. Patients at John Howard Centre and any mental health hospital are patients not prisoners. If I’m 35 minutes late back from leave from hospital, it is right that this is recorded as AWOL [absent without leave]. It would be neglectful not to. Usually I’m late because my bus was late and [there is] only 1 irregular bus [that] actually goes to the hospital (that screams of stigma). All your report has done is whip up misguided fears and stigma about mental health and given Majorie Wallace a platform. I’ve been late back from hospital leave so I can get a take away. H&S [Health & Safety] rules say hot food can’t be kept so it’s take away or starve. Once I was technically AWOL from a ward, but on site. I ‘refused’ to return to the ward until homophobic abuse was sorted.”

Earlier today, I (and several others) received the following response from Antony Dore, Editor, BBC London TV News weekdays:

“You’re right – we shouldn’t have used ‘prisoners’. Have discussed this issue with those involved.”

To which I responded:

“Thank you. Will there be a correction broadcast in the same news bulletins tonight?”

Several others raised the same point, which is that, if a prominent report is incorrect – and the story lead the 6:30pm bulletin and was story 2 of 2 in the 10:30pm bulletin – a correction should be issued with equal prominence. The incorrect impression given must be corrected.

It’s stories like these – presenting mental health problems and mental health units purely in the context of violent crime and escaped prisoners – which help to perpetuate ignorance, prejudice and discrimination against people like me. Stories like these create shame and stigma. Stories like these belong to the past. It seems the John Howard Centre is portrayed in stories like this as almost equivalent to a Broadmoor in the heart of residential London.

I’ll be watching the news tonight to see BBC London News does broadcast a correction.

.Update small

There was no correction on the evening’s news bulletin.



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8 Responses to “Patients or prisoners? Late back or escaped?”

  1. Steve Norton - aka, Penfold Dax (pen name) 25 February 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    Does the way that the media portray schizophrenics constitute a psychological attack on everyone with the illness?…I am fed up with having the stigma of being unstable and potentially violent just because i am tagged with this illness, i cope by writing poetry and i have even had a book published…ooh-i am so dangerous.

    • Doremus 2 March 2014 at 1:58 pm #

      [This comment has been removed by the website administrator]

      • penfolddax 2 March 2014 at 4:45 pm #

        The poetry comes from within and is subjective to mood and ambiance of the mind, the systematic way that i use it as a coping mechanism is irrelevant to the art,
        Anything that helps to focus the mind is beneficial to a mental illness. Duh-Huh

        The words that a poet writes all have a specific place,
        one word after another with a concept to embrace.
        an obsessive compulsive nature regulates the scripture through art,
        binding the mind to the pen; that is mentally chained to the heart.

      • Doremus 2 March 2014 at 4:52 pm #

        [This comment has been removed by the website administrator]

      • penfolddax 2 March 2014 at 5:05 pm #

        No problem Doremus, as you say it is hard to gauge intention on the web, it was the duh that done it…lol, I waited for a while to reply until i thought i had the right intention, always good to meet another poet 🙂

  2. Mel 26 February 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Reblogged this on Seeing Rabbits.

  3. Jon 3 March 2014 at 10:54 pm #

    Thank you

    Here is the BBC sensationalist story, inaccurately stigmatising mental patient as dangerous

    Are they patients or prisoners…she can’t seem to make her mind up?

    Poor and inaccurate reporting from the BBC

    “Homerton mental health unit criticised over 200 absconders”

    “200 patients, ***including a convicted killer*** have absconded”

    “Prisoners absent without leave”


    ‘A few mental health patients were more than 30min late back from their leave’

    Statistics about violence and mental illness

    FACT: “The majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems”

  4. Pala 15 April 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    That’s an ironic name for, what sounds to be, an “unenlightened” psychological asylum. John Howard (the British one, not the Australian PM) was famous for his pioneering work into the injustices and systemic cruelties maintained by British prisons. (His work influenced Bentham, the godfather of JS Mill, both of whom are known for founding utilitarian ethics. Bentham considered the treatment of prisoners to be shamefully and unnecessarily barbaric)…

    My linking of mental illness and criminal incarceration is due to the name of John Howard. But while it is unfair to vilify mental illness, you probably know that a large proportion of the prison system acts as a cruel stand-in for mental care. My knowledge of the matter is largely limited to an article I’d recommend about American penal solitary confinement, where mental illness if highly over-represented. (Google “Twilight in the Box”).

    Your writings are incredibly insightful and I am grateful for (if also deeply saddened by) the access to your reality.

    We are all the centre of our own universe, sharing the same planet, yet alien to each other’s world.

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