Satellite tracking for the most dangerous psychiatric patients
David Rose, Health Correspondent
Some of Britain’s most dangerous psychiatric patients, including murderers, rapists and paedophiles, are being fitted with satellite tracking devices to stop them escaping and reoffending.
A leading NHS trust has become the first to fit patients with an ankle bracelet containing global positioning system (GPS) technology, so they can be tracked if they abscond. The device, worn on a lockable, steel-reinforced, ankle strap, allows authorities to track a patient’s movements to within a few metres anywhere in the world.
More than 60 medium and high-risk patients detained at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust have been fitted with the device as a condition of day leave, or while they are transferred to and from hospitals.
The trust said that such measures were necessary to protect the public, after a series of high-profile incidents where patients absconded, fled abroad or committed violent crimes.
Mental health charities said that the secure cuffs, which can be forcibly removed only using industrial bolt cutters, resembled “virtual leg irons” and could violate the rights of vulnerable patients.
The GPS device, known as a Buddi tracker, was originally designed for carers to track dementia patients who wandered from their homes.
The secure version, remotely monitored by a private security company based in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, was approved in March for routine use after a pilot study showed that it could help to apprehend patients in a matter of hours rather than days.
A number of other NHS Trusts are understood to be considering use of the trackers, developed by Sara Murray, an entrepreneur whose previous projects include confused.com, the price comparison website.
The system was introduced in South London as a response to the case of Terrence O’ Keefe, 39, a rapist who escaped from the trust’s care in March 2008 and later strangled David Kemp, 73, in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. O’Keefe was jailed for life after being recaptured and convicted of murder.
The trust opened a new £33.5 million medium-security unit at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, Beckenham, in February 2008, where there have since been 26 incidents of patients absconding or failing to return, including one man who was eventually found in Canada.
The new system will cost the NHS about £600 for each patient, including £250 for an ankle bracelet containing a mobile phone chip and GPS locator.
Last month it was used to successfully track a male patient who had travelled eight miles on foot from Beckenham and was apprehended within three hours near Biggin Hill airport, Kent.
If a patient wearing the device leaves a defined area, strays close to a school or otherwise breaks their curfew, police can be automatically sent an alert with their estimated location within 50 metres, along with personal details and a mugshot.
Police can then be directed to the tracker within a target response time of 12 minutes.
Use of the tracker was “mostly voluntary”, but was also a condition for some patients being granted day leave as part of their rehabilitation, Ms Murray said. Patients detained by a court order or under the Mental Health Act are granted leave only from secure units after detailed assessment by medical staff.
“We started talking to the trust at the beginning of last year,” she said. “They have a number of high-profile, high-risk patients that are allowed out on leave. If they get an opportunity to run off, they will.”
A spokesperson for South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust said: “We have a duty to provide high-quality patient care while at the same time promoting public safety.”
But Paul Jenkins, chief executive of Rethink, the mental health charity, called the tags “demeaning” and said that patients with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia should not be labelled as criminals. He urged health regulators to monitor use of the tags and to ensure that patients gave consent to being tagged.
“The best way to help people to get better is to invest in treatment, and we would rather see money spent on improved mental health services rather than wasted on demeaning items such as these,” he said. “Violence is not a symptom of mental illness and should not be regarded as inevitable.”
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