Commissioners will work closely with neighbourhood police to keep the mentally ill out of jail, the government's director of prison health has announced.

Speaking at a prison mental healthcare conference, Richard Bradshaw gave a preview of the proposals in a new offender health and social care strategy consultation document that will be launched on Wednesday.

He said: 'I don't think that many primary care trusts think about offenders, they're probably not on their radars as a socially excluded, very ill group.'

Mr Bradshaw said primary care trusts would have to work with local authorities and neighbourhood police to ensure that vulnerable groups, such as 'young people drinking alcohol on street corners', were identified earlier as potential patients and offenders.

Responsibility for commissioning healthcare for people in police custody should transfer from the prison service to PCTs, he said.

Commissioners are already unhappy about taking on the costs of providing security for prisoner patients (for more background, click here).

Mr Bradshaw said the NHS needed to help mentally ill offenders stay out of prison by supporting mental health treatment orders as an alternative to jail sentences.

'There's more the health service could do to support community sentences rather than only relying on the criminal justice system.'

Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health director of public affairs Andy Bell said judges were often forced to imprison people with severe mental illnesses because community rehabilitation programmes were not available.

'Services aren't being commissioned. We're very well aware that the NHS has a lot of priorities and it's all too easy to blame PCTs for problems.

'But it's also true that unless we develop services to support people with mental health problems, they will end up cycling through the system time and time again.'

The idea of working with neighbourhood police had 'a lot of potential', he said, due to their relationship with people in the community.