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Mental Illness in our prisons

Due in part to “get tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies, the United States has achieved in recent decades the highest rate of incarceration in the world, increasing from 1980 to 2008 from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million individuals behind bars. Not all segments of society are equally represented. Racial and ethnic minorities in particular are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates.

Likewise, the rate of mental illness among inmates in jails and prisons in the U.S. is dramatically elevated. The Bureau of Justice has previously reported that approximately half of state and federal prisoners and inmates in jail suffer mental health problems serious enough to warrant diagnosis or treatment, and others have indicated that 10 times more seriously mentally ill people reside in prisons and jails than in state psychiatric hospitals in the U.S.. A recent Human Rights Watch report suggests our jails and prisons remain ill-equipped to address the mental health needs of these highly vulnerable individuals, and that prison and jail staff members are often inadequately equipped to deescalate crises without use of excessive force. Similar concerns have been reported in the juvenile justice system.

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