The Modern (Prison) Asylum

“Prisons have become the nation’s primary mental health facilities. But for those with serious illnesses, prison can be the worst place to be.”
Director, U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch
“We are literally drowning in patients, running around trying to put our fingers in the bursting dikes, while hundreds of men continue to deteriorate psychiatrically before our eyes into serious psychoses… The crisis stems from recent changes in the mental health laws allowing more mentally sick patients to be shifted away from the mental health department into the department of corrections…”
California Prison Psychiatrist
Dr. Ken Martinez of the New Mexico Department of Children, Youth and Families said the figures showed “the criminalization of mental illness,” as “juvenile detention centers have become de facto psychiatric hospitals for mentally ill youth.”
Ernestine S. Gray, a Juvenile Court judge in New Orleans, testified that 70 percent to 85 percent of the children who appeared before the court had mental health or drug abuse problems.

Since 1999, the Department of Justice has released two reports dealing with the issue of mentally ill inmates. It found that fully 16 percent of the people in the nation’s corrections systems were mentally ill, but that only 60 percent of those reported receiving any mental health treatment.


Something is amiss in this country. In the 1960’s the US changed its policy and methods of treating mental illness and began releasing more and more people from mental hospitals onto the streets. We did so while simultaneously relying on drugs to fix the problem of the cost of caring for the mentally ill citizens of this country. The problem was not solved but was merely shifted and swept away to another department – the department of corrections.

Tax payers at the time of the policy change were resentful at having to pay to fund state mental hospitals so our legislators implemented changes that have been nothing but detrimental to our society in the years since then. Instead of funding mental hospitals our tax dollars now go to fund prisons. Those people who fall between the cracks of poor mental health care treatment in this country often times land in prison when they hit bottom. Our prison system is already over burdened with results of our ever failing war on drugs and is now being strained even further by being filled with people who need treatment, not warehousing and incarceration.

The mentally ill in prison fall to the very bottom of the pit. Behavior is misunderstood and penalized when corrections officers with no psychiatric training fail to recognize signs of schizophrenia or dementia. There have been several documented cases of abuse of the mentally ill who are incarcerated such as beatings, being pepper-sprayed, etc. Being put in solitary confinement can affect even a mentally stable person and can have extremely debilitating effects on someone with a mental disorder. Yet it happens all the time. And what help is there for someone who is possibly delusional? Undiagnosed? Demented? Otherwise mentally challenged or dysfunctional? How can we expect someone not in their right mind to know what to do if they are being abused? What recourse do they have that they know of? How often do you suppose the word of a mentally ill inmate is taken or believed over that of a corrections officer or other prison staff or official? How are they supposed to be heard?

An already maxed out and stressed out system like our prisons are also lacking in proper funding for medical and psychiatric treatment and inmates frequently do not get the medication and therapy they require. They are left to deteriorate as more and more budget cuts are made in correctional facilities across the country. How can we expect an entity the size of the department of corrections to have the means, the funding or the time to care for or tend to inmates with mental disorders?

Realistically, we cannot. One solution would be to stop making mental illness and the actions and side effects of it – drug abuse, alcohol abuse and homelessness into criminal offenses. We need to begin by acknowledging the problem instead of sweeping it from one government department to another. We need to look at the problem head on, admit that far too many mentally ill citizens in this country are either living on the streets or behind bars. We need to offer some solutions other than punishing them for their illnesses. Solutions such as early diagnosis, more shelters and clinics, more therapy would be a small start. We need to be more compassionate in our approach. We are making a poor statement as a world leader. We should not be content to be known as a leader of incarcerating citizens, but rather as a leader in caring for those citizens who are mentally ill or disabled and in need of supervision and care.

Even children are being held as prisoners and not being given the mental health treatment they require and this really saddens and sickens me. We are better than this… Aren’t we?

• Figures were compiled by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Government Reform in a nationwide survey of juvenile detention centers. The numbers show that 15,000 children with psychiatric disorders were improperly incarcerated in 2003 because no mental health services were available in their communities. The study, presented at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, found that children as young as 7 were incarcerated because of a lack of access to mental-health care.
• More than 340 detention centers, two-thirds of those that responded to the survey, said that youths with mental disorders were being locked up because there was no place else for them to go while awaiting treatment.
Seventy-one centers in 33 states said they were holding mentally ill children for whom no charges of any kind had been filed.
• The 15,000 youths awaiting mental health services accounted for 8 percent of all the youngsters in responding detention centers.
• According to the Department of Justice (1996 Source Book: Criminal Justice Statistics), it costs American taxpayers a staggering $15 billion per year to house individuals with psychiatric disorders in jails and prisons ($50,000 per person annually; 300,000 incarcerated individuals with mental illness).

That is an old number I wonder what the cost is up to by this year..?

Here are a few more recent statistics of costs –
The Los Angeles County Jail spends $10 million per year on psychiatric medications.
Sheriff social worker: Helping people off the streets. Los Angeles Times (November 20, 2001).
As of October 2005, Ohio was treating 8,371 mentally ill prisoners to the tune of about $67 million a year.
Puente, Mark. Care of mentally ill prisoners costly for jails. The Plain Dealer (Jan. 20, 2006).
From 1996 to 2001 in the Oklahoma prison system, the number of prescriptions for psychiatric medications increased from 22,000 to over 40,000.
Hinton, M., and T. Lindley. Options few for mentally ill. The Daily Oklahoman (November 5, 2001).
It costs Broward County, Florida, taxpayers $78 per day to house a general population inmate, but it costs $125 per day to house an inmate with a mental illness.
Jenne, Ken and Donald F. Eslinger. South Florida Sun-Sentinel (April 21, 2003).
In 2000, the Cuyahoga County jail in Ohio spent $175,000 for olanzapine (Zyprexa) alone.
Exner R. Sheriff runs own pharmacy unit in jail. The Plain Dealer (November 5, 2001).
At midyear 1998, there were over a quarter of a million mentally ill people incarcerated in prison or jail. An estimated 283,800 inmates — or 16 percent of all incarcerated individuals — reported either a mental condition or an overnight stay in a mental hospital, and were identified as mentally ill.
Only 60 percent of the mentally ill in state and federal prisons reported receiving mental health treatment since being incarcerated.
About two-thirds of the inmates in state facilities who receive counseling or psychotropic medications were in facilities that didn’t specialize in providing mental health services in confinement.
Half of the mentally ill inmates in state and federal facilities reported having three or more prior sentences.
Mentally ill state prison inmates were more than twice as likely as other inmates to report living on the street or in a shelter within the last 12 months.
Mentally ill inmates reported longer criminal histories than other inmates. Among the mentally ill 52% of State prisoners, 54% of jail inmates, and 49% of Federal inmates reported three or more prior sentences to probation or incarceration. Among other inmates, 42% of State prisoners and jail inmates and 28% of Federal inmates had three or more prior sentences. About 10% of mentally ill prison inmates and 13% of jail inmates reported 11 or more prior sentences.
Mentally ill offenders reported high rates of homelessness, unemployment, alcohol and drug use, and physical and sexual abuse prior to their current incarceration. During the year preceding their arrest, 30% of mentally ill inmates in jail and 20% of those in State or Federal prison reported a period of homelessness, when they were living either on the street or in a shelter. About 9% of other State prison inmates, 3% of other Federal inmates and 17% of other jail inmates reported a period a homelessness in the year prior to their arrest.
According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice, in mid-2005 there were 2,186,230 prisoners in local jails and state and federal prisons in the United States.

Estimates of the percentage of prisoners who have severe psychiatric disorders have ranged from 7 percent to 16 percent; the latter figure comes from a widely cited but methodologically questionable federal study. The best studies suggest that approximately 10 percent of prisoners have severe psychiatric disorders.
Thus, approximately 218,000 individuals with severe psychiatric disorders are incarcerated in the nation’s jails and prisons at any given time.
This number is equivalent to the population of such cities as Akron, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Montgomery, Alabama; Richmond, Virginia; or Tacoma, Washington.

Source – Bureau of Justice Report

Rebecca McFarland
© 2009

About Wyld Chyld

Artist, activist.
This entry was posted in Mental Health, Sensory Deprivation, Solitary Confinement, Super-Max and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Modern (Prison) Asylum

  1. MisBehaved Woman says:

    Reblogged this on MisBehaved Woman.

  2. yourothermotherhere says:

    Incarcerating the mentally ill is right next door to pricing healthcare out of reach for the poor, elderly and disabled. The truth of the matter is that if you aren’t contributing to the tax base you’re not only considered expendable, you’re considered a deficit that needs to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.

    • MisBehaved Woman says:

      I wish I could disagree but you are 100% right. So few people even realize what happens to those on the edges of society and even fewer care what happens in prisons…after all, all prisoners are evil and deserving of hatred, right? I cannot think of anything more terrifying than being mentally ill and getting caught in the prison system…

      • yourothermotherhere says:

        I truly cannot either. I can’t even imagine the continual nightmare life must be for those people.

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