Criminalization of the Mentally Ill

According to the Washington Post in December of 2001, “The number of people with serious mental illness in America’s jails and prisons today is five times greater than the number in state mental hospitals. Prisons, as an observer, of similar trends in Australia have noted, “the new asylums of the 21st century.” The criminalization of the mentally ill is inhumane. It is also emotionally and financially costly, and a testament to government failures at all levels.” Less and less treatment is given to inmates of whom are in need while each year, the cost to house, feed, and clothe these inmates goes up in the mal-funded institutions due to the lack of funding and care at federal, state, and local levels.

With the lack of funding, treatment, staffing, and care at all governmental levels my partner and I stand resolved that the United States federal government should substantially increase public health services for mental health in the United States.

Our definitions are as followed:

United States: The 48 contiguous states, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Federal Government: The United States ruling body based in Washington D.C

Substantially increase: To enlarge to a great extent or expand the amount of

Public health: The science and practice of protecting and improving the health of a community, as by preventive medicine, health education, control of communicable diseases, providing psychological treatment, application of sanitary measures, and monitoring of environmental hazards.

Mental health: A state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society, and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.

Prison: A place or condition of confinement or forcible restraint

According to Sibulkin Kiesler of the center for Mental Health Services, since 1950, the number of psychiatric hospital patients has declined from 592,853 to 71,619 in 1994. In the 1990’s 40 state mental hospitals closed their doors and left 60,000 to squeeze into the ones that remained or were incarcerated. America’s treatment centers for the mentally ill are closing and leaving those in need of help stranded in overcrowded hospitals or in prison where they receive little to no treatment.

Along with the dramatic reduction in facilities, the number of mentally ill inmates has risen in prisons to 283,000 out of 715,000. 30 to 56 percent of inmates are in need of some type of psychiatric treatment while few actually receive it due to lack of treatment centers in prisons across America, says P.M Ditton of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1999. Each year the numbers of mentally ill people grow while treatment does not. The decrease in treatment centers outside of prison is a direct contributor.

Most prisons in the United States cannot offer ill inmates treatment that is needed and sometimes required by their court decision due to lack of training and facilities. In a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2001, more than one in five prisons have no access to mental services of any kind and 84% of correctional officers receive no training or less than three hours of training in special problems of people with severe mental illness.

According to Ron Honberg of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, the prison environment is not conducive to providing quality treatment and many mentally ill inmates can become more symptomatic while in jail. Many times, those dispensing medications to inmates are orderlies and aren’t extensively trained.

The attitude and structure the United States has with mentally ill people is inherently flawed. According to the Washington Post in December of 2001, “the difference between now and then is that today the final destination of the mentally ill tends to be the criminal justice system, where costs are greater, the treatment setting is wrong and where there is a substantial probability the sick will be returned to the community without medication or rehabilitation programs to keep them out of trouble or from a return trip to jail.”

The ill are being put into prisons which have little to no treatment and then being released back into the community without any rehabilitation only to be arrested again and repeat the cycle. 81.2 percent of the mentally ill who have or are incarcerated have prior arrests due to the lack of rehabilitation according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1999.

One in five prisons have no access to treatment centers or medicine for the mentally ill while 84% of officers in prisons have little to no training in the field. The ill are not getting the treatment they need to get better. Prisons were designed to rehabilitate and make the inmates productive members of society, but this is impossible if those in need of treatment cannot get it.

P.M Ditton also states that jails and prisons are inappropriate places for those with mental illnesses because of the stress of the environment and the lack of mental health services, which reinforces the argument that America’s prison system is not equipped with the facilities needed to rehabilitate.

A 1992 study of American jails reported that a shocking 29 percent of the jails acknowledged holding ill individuals with no charge against them. These individuals were being held awaiting psychiatric evaluation, the availability of a hospital bed, or transportation to a medical hospital. These jailings were done under state laws permitting emergency detentions of individuals suspected of being mentally ill. In some cases like these, prisons are being used as an intermediary between the community and mental health centers; however, in most cases, mentally ill people are being imprisoned with no intent on getting medical help.

The Treatment Advocacy Center in 2001 stated that, “Police, in fact, frequently use disorderly conduct charges to arrest an ill person when no other charge is available…Mercy bookings and business requests are also reasons for arrest because the community does not want the ill on their streets.” The ill are arrested frequently when no harm is done so they won’t be on the streets of a community who does not desire them.

One in five prisons do not have access to any mental health center or medicine and 84% of correctional officers receive little no training, which allows for the incarcerated mentally ill to just get worse in jail instead of receiving rehabilitation. With the decreasing numbers of mental health centers and the growing increase in mentally ill prisoners in America’s jails, it is obvious something needs to be done. The funding that was put into rehabilitating the ill have been redirected to house them in jail, which costs nearly double what it does to give them treatment.

The cause of this problem is due to many problems. Lack of facilities, funding, and training. Many correctional officers are not trained properly to handle, care for, or treat mentally ill inmates in prisons across America. The number of mental health treatment centers have been reducing over the years with no growth in treatment in America’s prisons into which the mentally ill go.

Due to these problems in the system in which the United States runs its correctional facilities my partner and I propose the following plan.