People with mental illness have long faced the threat of institutionalization. For many years, the mentally ill were locked up in asylums. While these individuals no longer face the threat of being trapped in psychiatric institutions thanks to the mass deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities in the 1960s, they now face a different kind of institution. Instead of receiving the care they need, the mentally ill are being thrown in prison.
Prisons have been named the “new asylums” as they hold approximately 383,000 individuals suffering from a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or major depressive disorder. Los Angeles, New York and Chicago correctional facilities are currently serving as the three biggest psychiatric facilities in the United States. Furthermore, there are more mentally ill people housed in state prisons than in hospitals, and these people are not getting the care they need behind bars for a variety of reasons.
People with mental illness are being housed in prisons in increasingly high numbers, and once they are incarcerated it is difficult for them to receive the care they need. To solve the problem of mass incarceration of the mentally ill, treatment should be made more accessible to those who are in prison.
Prisoners simply do not receive adequate mental health care during their incarceration. As treatment options go, prisoners in many institutions are allowed to receive therapy, but it is often not private. In some cases, a therapist will sit outside an inmate’s cell and do a session, however, this means everybody around the prisoner can hear what is being said. This takes away the privacy and comfort of therapy, rendering it largely ineffective and leaving inmates with little recourse. However, this problem only exists when inmates do get therapy, but more often than not, they get none at all. Both situations do not help individuals who are struggling with their mental stability and can leave those with mental illness with no option but for their health to deteriorate.
Even worse than not receiving care, prisoners are often punished for their illness. A lack of care for people with mental illness, especially in an environment as stressful as prison, often leads to further mental distress. This can result in people acting out in ways such as harming themselves or others or failing to follow rules exactly how they are stated. In prison, this leads to people being placed in solitary confinement or restrictive housing, leaving them alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. For someone suffering from depression or schizophrenia, being alone for hours on end can have detrimental effects on mental well-being, which only exacerbates the issue.
Treatment options for mentally ill inmates are not determined by correctional officers or prison wardens. Rather, funding for mental health care in prisons is left up to state legislators, which is an issue if states are not prioritizing mental health care. States that brush mental health under the rug will likely face more prisoners as well as more recidivism.
An analysis of 2012 prison releases conducted by the Department of Corrections states 37 percent of prisoners with mental illnesses will end up being locked up again within three years of their release. Many prisoners have admitted to leaving prison in a worse mental state than when they were first incarcerated. Thus, a lack of proper mental health care provided to prisoners leads to a much higher possibility that they would be locked up again.
Louisiana is a prime example of a state with one of the highest rates of incarceration as well as a broken mental health care system. Governmental funds are scarce, and many cuts were made in 2009 within the health care system. Mental health, not being a priority, suffered extreme budget cuts. This is only one example of how poor mental health resources, both in and out of prison, often correlate with high rates of incarceration.
State legislators should focus on finding ways to better mental health treatment for prisoners in order to help inmates and reduce the need for incarceration. There are many ways to provide cost-efficient forms of mental health treatment to inmates who are suffering. For example, a team working with Michigan State University found that using interpersonal psychotherapy with prisoners resulted in reduced levels of depression and anxiety.
IPT focuses on difficult or traumatic life events, relationships, conflicts and grief. This form of therapy allows one to pinpoint moments in their life that contribute to great amounts of depression or anxiety. IPT is significantly less expensive than other forms of treatment and has been shown to be incredibly effective in helping people deal with emotional pain and trauma, which often affect those in prison. The study conducted with mentally ill inmates showed reduced depressive symptoms after undergoing this form of treatment. While this therapy and similar practices will not solve all problems having to do with mental illness in prison, implementing new tactics is a much needed step. By ensuring inmates are getting the care they need, prisons can stop causing people to leave incarceration with worse mental health than when they arrived.
Prisons should not be used as a dumping ground for those with mental illness. Rather than allowing people’s mental illnesses to worsen while incarcerated, prisons should be attempting to address the mental illnesses that plague so many of their inmates.
The talk surrounding mental health must broaden its scope to involve all people who are suffering, including those in incarceration. Until those in power decide to prioritize the mental health needs of those in the criminal justice system, this nation will be stuck in a vicious cycle of immoral and cruel treatment of prisoners’ mental health.