Mental illness and incarceration

Problems with mental illness and incarceration

Hunter Frint


Mental illness and incarceration institutions have a long running relationship in the United States, but action is being taken in some places to change the stigma surrounding the generally negative affiliation.

Mental Illness Incarceration graphic

With approximately half of people incarcerated in federal or state prisons and local jails suffering from mental illnesses there are many consequences that arise.


Some institutions, such as a local jail in Arlington, Virginia, are taking the matter into their own hands to repair, but some are at the root of the problem. Many are beginning to see that punishment of incarceration in a correctional facility is not the best option for those with mental health problems.


The statistics regarding those in jail and prison systems are alarming. The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines mental health problems by two measures – A recent history and symptoms of mental illness. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 45 percent of inmates in Federal prison, 56 percent of inmates in State prison and 64 percent in local jails are mentally ill.


When looking at differences between males and females, the female inmates had higher rates of mental health problems. In State prisons, 73 percent of females in comparison to 55 percent of males were mentally ill, while in local jails the percentage was even higher for both, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.


Many of the inmates have other issues when they enter the systems, and several of those who enter with mental illnesses meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence. These issues continue as, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 1 in 3 state prison inmates with reported mental health issues had received treatment since admission, while 1 in 6 received treatment since entering a local jail.


Incarceration into a local jail, state or federal prison is not an adequate rehabilitation for those with mental illness. It is a system created to punish those who are healthy for breaking the laws put into place by the government, and one could question if the system is even doing that job correctly.


But those who are incarcerated with mental illnesses are coming out of these institutions with no treatment and no help, only to be tossed right back into the same problems they faced before. Many are involved with drug usage within a month of their arrest.


The problems are not just isolated to after the inmates are released. Those with mental illness are far more likely to have issues during incarceration. Almost half in State prisons are charged with violating facility rules. This is because many people incarcerated and afflicted with mental illnesses do not respond well to the environment and structure of a prison.


In Arlington, Virginia, new practices are being put into place with a whole new outlook on mental illness when the local police are called. In the case of such an incident, their first reaction is not to arrest them and take them to jail. In Arlington County and others who are following this model, screenings and precautions are taken to see if the perpetrator has a mental illness. If they do, then the proper protocol is taken and the individual receives help instead of being incarcerated right from the beginning.


According to the American Psychiatric Association, The Arlington County Mental Health Criminal Justice Review Committee meets monthly to discuss ways to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jail. The procedures that the county police and justice system follow are based off a model developed by psychiatrists and mental health experts, including Mark Munetz, M.D.


“I believe the model has been helpful to communities and has been widely adopted as an approach to the problem,” Munetz told Psychiatric News. “A number of states and many counties across the country have used it as a framework.”


The Portland Police Department is another example of the justice system dedicated to helping those with mental health issues. Portland and other cities have been providing Crisis Intervention Team training for their officers. CIT training and those programs like it provide officers with 40 hours of training to learn how to deescalate situations involving people with mental illness and where to take them to get help, instead of “arrest and find out later.”


Though these improvements and steps toward a solution have been made, there are still stories being told of why reform is so important to those with mental health issues. According to a story published by the New Yorker, there are terrible things happening in some Florida prisons. A psychiatrist who worked for the Dade Correctional Institution told stories of torture and harassment of mentally ill prisoners by guards.


Mentally ill inmates have more infractions than most and sometimes this makes them targets to not only mistreatment from fellow inmates, but also employees at the facilities. Though there has been improvement, correctional facilities and the justice system still has a long way to go when it comes to the needs of those suffering from mental illness.





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