"I kept asking and asking for help"
Ex-prisoner Farah Damji is trying to become the first person to sue the NHS over claims of bad mental health care in prison.
Ms Damji has four convictions for 28 offences that date back to 1995.
After years of mental health issues, a psychologist diagnosed her with PTSD in 2019.
Since 2013, the NHS has been responsible for prisoners’ health care in England.
Ms Damji is suing Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust over claims she was repeatedly denied mental health care at HMP Bronzefield, HMP Downview and HMP Send between 2014 and 2020.
She told Sky News: “Women are so reluctant to complain about anything in prison because they are too frightened of the repercussions.”
Ms Damji is currently living in Ireland, having fled her most recent trial for breaching a restraining order in March 2020.
She claimed she fled due to suffering a breakdown.
According to the Ministry of Justice, over 71% of female prisoners have mental health issues.
Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of Centre for Mental Health, describes “poor wellbeing” as the “norm” in women’s prisons.
He said: “Many women in prison have very complex needs coming from a lifetime of abuse and neglect.
“So the NHS is trying to meet an awful lot of need in an environment which is inherently difficult and far from conducive to providing good mental health support.”
Ms Damji claimed she regularly sought psychological help in prison but was only able to get a final diagnosis 20 years after her first conviction.
While at HMP Downview in 2005, she was told she had borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Her lawyers now claim it was a misdiagnosis.
In 2014, Ms Damji was on remand at HMP Bronzefield when she said she told prison staff she felt suicidal.
She alleged: “I felt like I wasn’t going to get through what was happening to me.
“I kept asking and asking for help, but they did nothing.
“It’s a campaign of ignore them and they’ll shut up.”
After Ms Damji complained about her treatment there, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman ruled that the CNWL NHS Foundation Trust breached guidelines by refusing her psychotherapy.
They had said she was not entitled to it because she was a remand prisoner, not a sentenced one.
In 2018, Ms Damji was transferred to HMP Send in Woking. She said she asked for mental health care again.
She revealed: “I was told I wasn’t a priority. They told me ‘you’re going to have to get help when you’re out’.”
Ms Damji was released in 2019 but recalled a few months later after criticising her probation accommodation and support workers.
After a detailed psychological report was ordered, the ex-prisoner was diagnosed with PTSD.
She said: “It made sense – with the trauma of my childhood – but also the re-traumatisation of being in prison so many times.
“It made me feel angry. Angry that my mental health had meant so little to so many people and agencies.
“Why didn’t they help me years ago? Why have I spent my life in and out of prison?”
She is seeking damages of at least £70,000, with the first High Court date due later in 2021.
Caron Heyes, senior associate in medical negligence at Fieldfisher, said cases like Ms Damji’s are usually settled out of court.
She said: “If this case goes on to be argued in a trial and brings out the medical issues into open court, it could be really, really important.
“It could establish some case law, so when we’re trying to win cases for other people, it gives us precedent to refer back to.”
Although the NHS has a statutory duty of mental health care to prisoners, inmates are “at the mercy” of prison GPs and officers to refer them to specialists and take them to appointments.
She added: “There is a double resourcing issue – of the NHS and the prison service.
“It doesn’t matter what you say should happen, if it’s not actually happening on the ground, people will continue to be harmed.”
Ms Damji and her team are crowdfunding their legal costs.
She said she is trying to get mental health support in Ireland but still feels “very fragile”, is hyper-vigilant and struggles with sleep.
As she is currently fighting extradition, she is unable to return to the UK and see her family.
But the ex-prisoner says the court case is keeping her going.
She said: “There has to be another way for women who have gone through the trauma and abuse that I have and end up in the criminal justice system.
“The state is not meant to put you in a position where your mental health deteriorates to the point you can’t function.
“Mental health is a human right – your right to life is your most basic human right.
“I don’t want the same thing to happen to anyone else.”
Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust said in a statement:
“While we are sympathetic towards Ms Damji, we don’t accept the claims made and we are unable to comment further as legal proceedings are underway.”