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Report: Ten times more U.S. mentally ill sent to prisons than hospitals

Rikers Island
Rikers Island
Cdogsimmons at Wikimedia Commons

Americans eventually face the consequences of horrors they allow to happen, but there is no worse horror than to force a mentally ill person into prison. Prison is for punishing those who can follow rules and control their behavior. The criminally insane are sick and cannot be expected to conform. Yet, according to an April 8 Mother Jones article, 356,268 mentally ill inmates are in prisons where horrific levels of punishment, abuse and neglect go on. This is a record high number.

The Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) released a landmark state-by-state survey of laws that govern the treatment of mentally ill inmates. One major finding was that closing state psychiatric facilities caused the problems. Also, prison officials are compelled to provide intensive treatment when it is needed. Finally there is more mental illness and the illness is becoming more severe.

Too many prison Inmates suffer from serious illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. They have diseases of the brain that call for treatment just as heart diseases, cancers and epileptic disorders do. They should be in health care, not punitive prison facilities because they are sick people.

State psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. only hold about 35,000 out of an untold number of eligible inpatients. Outpatient care and social services support are also lacking or patients might not even commit crimes.

As a result, only about ten percent of severely or dangerously mentally ill people who are incarcerated are being held in the proper institutions. Among them are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The nation’s worst nightmare happens when judges and prison authorities have only one track: Forcing mentally or emotionally incompetent prisoners into rules-based systems. Since they cannot follow rules very well, such prisoners remain incarcerated longer because of so-called “bad behavior.”

Justice, jail and prison authorities are forced to push sick people into a punitive, rules based system without any ways to modify jail blocks into hospital wards. But how do those who work the the justice system justify thoughtless punitive policies being applied to all?

They do not. The TAC report says,

“Sheriffs, jail administrators, and others who were interviewed for the survey expressed compassion for inmates with mental illness and frustration with the mental health system that is failing them.”

Combine an impossible setup with murders, assaults, torture, neglect and rape that are a regular fact of prison life. America’s prisons cannot keep major gangs from carrying out nationwide operations, including street drug logistics and assassinations. There is little hope for a severely ill prisoner.

Mentally ill prisoners are disproportionately left in solitary confinement or are not properly monitored. Homeless, mentally ill Jerome Murdough was arrested for sleeping on the roof of a public housing building. He was taken to Rikers Island in New York. He was administered drugs and was left unmonitored in an overheated cell. He died in a way that was described as being "baked to death."

Prisons are for punishment, not medical care, and wardens have far too much authority to deny access and treatment, so getting the proper medications or monitoring is not a guarantee.

America can expect more cases of horrific self mutilation, even more “rule breaking,” violent treatment and preventable death. It is time to turn more prison space into medical space and to return to laws that regulate confinement and treatment of mentally ill inmates.

The idea of changing punitive, rules based confinement to medical, treatment based confinement is not that difficult to comprehend. The time is now, because severe mental illness is on the rise.

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