Mental Health

Prisons House 10 Times As Many Mentally Ill Americans As State Hospitals

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht

Prisons are home to 10 times as many mentally ill Americans as state psychiatric facilities, according to a report published Tuesday.

According to the report, from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff’s Association, the health of the majority of mentally ill inmates deteriorates while incarcerated.

“We have placed more than 300,000 severely mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails that are neither equipped nor staffed to handle such problems,” the report reads. "We subsequently have made it very difficult to treat the mentally ill inmates, put restriction on other options for controlling their behavior, and then blamed the prison and jail administrators when they fail. It is a situation that is grossly unfair to both the inmates and the corrections officials and should be the subject of public outrage and official action.”

Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and lead author of the report, says the number of incarcerated mentally ill is on par with the system in place in the 1830s.

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“We’ve basically gone back to where we were 170 years ago,” Torrey told Kaiser Health News. “We are doing an abysmal job of treating people with serious mental illnesses in this country. It is both inhumane and shocking the way we have dumped them into the state prisons and the local jails.”

“In 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, a prison or jail in that state holds more individuals with serious mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital,” the report states. “For example, in Ohio, 10 state prisons and two county jails each hold more mentally ill inmates than does the largest remaining state hospital.”

Mentally ill prisoners have higher recidivism rates, which compounds the cost to the American taxpayer. 

“By shifting the venue of these mentally ill individuals from hospitals to prisons and jails, we have succeeded in replicating the abysmal conditions of the past but in a nonclinical setting whose fundamental purpose is not medical in nature," the report reads.

But mentally ill inmates involuntarily committed to state hospitals don't appear to be faring any better than those in prison. 

A Massachusetts mother filed a lawsuit against the state prisons department this month, claiming her 31-year-old son, who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, has been restrained and left in solitary confinement for hours at a time at Bridgewater State Hospital.

Joanne Minich says the health of her son Peter, who has been deprived of human contact and exercise for more than 6,300 hours since January 2013, is in decline.

Peter was civilly committed to Bridgewater for allegedly assaulting a staff member at another state mental health facility. He was never convicted of a crime.

"My son has an illness, in the same sense as someone with cancer or dementia," Joanne Minich said in a statement. "The last place he belongs is in a seclusion room behind a solid steel door."

Sources: Al Jazeera, ThinkProgress, MassLive