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Inmates with mental illness lack treatment and become sicker

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Mentally ill U.S. inmates often leave prison or jail sicker than when they entered the system, says a new study by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

The report entitled The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey was released on April 8, 2014. The study is the first to compile state laws and practices regarding the treatment of the mentally ill.

Researchers found that there were ten times more people with serious mental illnesses in county jails and state prisons than in American state mental hospitals. In 44 states, the largest institutions housing people with severe psychiatric disorders are jails and prisons. The study estimates that there are 356,000 mentally ill prisoners compared to 35,000 public hospital patients.

Report Highlights

  • The protocols for treatment of mentally ill prisoners who are deteriorating or acutely ill create barriers to treatment for extended or indefinite periods of time, particularly in county jails
  • Without treatment, mentally ill inmates become sicker, leading them to have disruptive and bizzare behavior
  • Mentally ill inmates are vulnerable to being victimized by being beaten and raped, and self-destructive behavior such as self-harm or suicide attempts
  • Inmates with the symptoms of mental illness are more likely to be placed in restraints or put into isolation

“The mistreatment of inmates in jails in prisons, including the denial of proper medical care, is a national embarrassment and has led to international condemnation,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and lead author of the study. “Mentally ill individuals who end up in prison or jail should be treated for their mental illness just as they should be treated for their diabetes or hypertension.”

The report includes recommendations such as:

  • Maintaining a functional mental health care system so that mentally ill people do not end up being incarcerated
  • Reforming mental illness treatment laws and practices to remove barriers to timely treatment before people commit crimes to ensure people are going to recieve treatment
  • Using court-ordered jail and prison laws so that mentally ill prisoners receive appropriate treatment
  • Enforce and implement jail diversion programs
  • Institute mandatory release planning

Recent research says that inmates who are not treated for mental illness after they are released are four times more likely to commit violent crimes than those who received treatment.

“The lack of treatment for seriously ill inmates is inhumane and should not be allowed in a civilized society,” Torrey said. “This is especially true for individuals who – because of their mental illness – are not aware they are sick and therefore refuse medication.”

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