My partner and I recently finished Season 4 of Orange is the New Black (highly recommend), and one episode particularly resonated with me. In fact, it made me cry, and I’m not a crier.
The episode centred around an inmate named Poussey, who, in the midst of an ‘incident’ within the prison, was forcibly held to the ground by a prison guard for an extended period of time, whilst the prison guard was being tackled by another inmate.
My partner had no idea what the result of this act would be. I knew, through my work within Public Law and mental health, and I knew that the use of such restraint can bring about death.
Prone restraint is where a person is held to the ground in a face-down position and is physically prevented from moving from that position. Too much force and the result can be fatal. The concern is that prone restraint can result in dangerous compression of the chest and airways, thus placing the person being restrained at a huge risk.
The majority of NHS Trust policies on the use of such restraint suggest that it ought to be used only as a last result, following unsuccessful attempts at de-escalation. Unfortunately, I am aware of incidents where prone restraint appears to be used as a first port of call, often on those with severe learning disability, and often in mental health hospital.
I appreciate that professionals within such a setting must keep themselves, the service user and other patients’ safe, but it is frightening that use of prone restraint remains commonplace, and remains the norm, despite policy suggesting that it should be used only in the most extreme circumstances.
There is a reason that prone restraint ought to be used as a final option – in 1998, a 38 year old gentleman named David Bennett was held in the prone restraint position by 5 staff members for a 25 minute period, resulting in his death. An independent inquiry (bbc article 18/06/13) found that Mr Bennett died as a direct result of prolonged face-down restraint and the amount of forced used by staff.
Did this end the use of prone restraint? No. According to Mind (2013), there have been 13 reported incidents of restraint related deaths in the UK since this. This figure is only for those detained under the MHA 1983 and included only those deaths which were actually reported. The figure is therefore likely to be higher, particularly taking into account the years following the study.
Shockingly, as someone living and working in the North East of England, Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust responded to a freedom of information request from Mind and stated that, in 2011-2012, prone restraint was used 923 times.
This is not uncommon, however, with Stewart et al (2009) finding that manual restraint is used 5 times per month on an average mental health ward. According to Mind, one Trust which responded to an FOI request stated there had been 38 incidents of prone restraint, whilst another said there had been over 3000 incidents.
Mind’s recommendation from the 2013 research was, of course, that the government ought to end the use of face down physical restraint.
Has this happened? Of course it hasn’t. The figures speak for themselves. Prone restraint continues to be used, on a large scale, and for as long as this is the case, there will be more and more restraint related deaths.
Not only ought the risk of death be enough for professionals to use every possible de-escalation technique available, but the use of such restraint can cause physical injury and psychological harm. Mind (2013) provided a quote from someone who had experienced such restraint; “it made me feel like a criminal, like I had done something wrong, not that I was ill and needed to get better”.
The free reign to use prone restraint is frightening. The fact that it is used to varying amounts across the country is worse, because it suggests either that instances of prone restraint often aren’t reported, or that staff aren’t provided with the same training across the board. I fear that both are correct.
Those detained under the MHA 1983 are in hospital, usually, for assessment and/or treatment. The mental health hospital ought to be viewed as a place of safety, where care is provided to those in crisis. The possibility of attending hospital and dying there due to an excessive use of force by those who were supposed to be caring for you, is a frightening concept, but it is one that is all too real.
Patients need to feel safe in the hospital environment. The use of prone restraint must be ended.