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.
Incarceration of a family member is a serious stressor for many families. In the community, family members of incarcerated individuals, including their children, are at substantially elevated risk for chronic mental, economic, and physical health problems.
Partly in response to prison overcrowding and concerns about neglect of inmate health needs, a national movement is underway toward “decarceration” (reducing the number of individuals incarcerated) through various means, including reclassification of drug offenses and community diversion and sentencing policies. Some scholars anticipate that the scope of this movement and its impact will rival psychiatric deinstitutionalization as the next massive challenge to the U.S. community mental health system.
The recent scientific and media attention on the U.S. approach to justice and corrections, both its problems and potential solutions, raises timely questions of how society will meet the mental health needs of highly vulnerable individuals within and beyond the prison walls. It also presents a great opportunities to improve humane treatment, protection of society, and reduction of risk for criminal recidivism and reincarceration. Organizations like ABCT and its membership will play a key role in how we understand and approach these challenges.