Monday, February 14, 2011

After reading a few insightful articles (posted by fellow advocate-Bob) I had this nagging feeling to delve into a very complex topic: the rise of mentally ill inmates in prison. In fact, this statistic has quadrupled in the past 6 years alone. Some chilling facts:

• 70% of jail inmates with mental illness are there for NONVIOLENT offenses.
• More than 16% of jail inmates have mental illness (at the end of 2000, nearly 1 million individuals with mental illness were in the criminal justice system).

To learn more about the facts above, check out this link. What's even more shocking is how many inmates are not receiving proper treatment for the severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. I will use an empathetic example to put this into perspective. Imagine a loved one who has or had a very serious illness (of any kind). Now imagine if your loved one was forced into a cell with no chance of treatment. This would further intensify the illness and at times lead to death.

The following link details
10 of the Most Misunderstood Mental Health Disorders. "Even though doctors and researchers have made huge strides in their understanding and treatment of mental health disorders, there is still much more to be learned and shared about these complex conditions." (Thank you Christine for the previous link) This lack of understanding infiltrates the prison system thus causing a very large problem that sucks our tax paying dollars down the drain. My fellow advocate, Bob, had a very novel concept, to rethink the prison system all together and put much more money into the mental health system (which right now, has funding cut left and right). Since deinstitutionalization, we NEED a mental health system that truly cares about those affected instead of viewing them as flawed, expendable individuals.

The following addresses mental health funding cuts in more detail. "The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors estimates that at least $2.1 billion has been cut from state mental health budgets in the last three fiscal years. Adult day treatment centers have been shuttered; subsidies for outpatient counseling, medications and family support services have dried up; case managers have been laid off; and more than 4,000 beds in psychiatric hospitals have closed, according to Michael J. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The fiscal squeeze has highlighted the inadequacy of community services to accommodate deinstitutionalization, and waiting lists have grown steadily in many states." Learn more here.

I want you to put yourself in the position of prisoner when reading the following. "Yet across the nation, many prison mental health services are woefully deficient, crippled by understaffing, insufficient facilities, and limited programs. All too often seriously ill prisoners receive little or no meaningful treatment. They are neglected, accused of malingering, treated as disciplinary problems. Without the necessary care, mentally ill prisoners suffer painful symptoms and their conditions can deteriorate. They are afflicted with delusions and hallucinations, debilitating fears, extreme and uncontrollable mood swings. They huddle silently in their cells, mumble incoherently, or yell incessantly. They refuse to obey orders or lash out without apparent provocation. They beat their heads against cell walls, smear themselves with feces, self-mutilate, and commit suicide...Prisons were never intended as facilities for the mentally ill, yet that is one of their primary roles today. Many of the men and women who cannot get mental health treatment in the community are swept into the criminal justice system after they commit a crime. In the United States, there are three times more mentally ill people in prisons than in mental health hospitals..." Learn more here.

And finally, a very well written paper by a Harvard student addressing the violation of basic civil rights of the imprisoned mentally ill.

I actually started to tear up as I read some of these articles because I think of the millions who DID NOT ask to be burdened with severe, debilitating illness yet, they are forced to pay for it. I will not stop until there is understanding, even if it takes an entire lifetime before I see progress. Some say I have too much empathy but how could you not be haunted by the blatant disregard for human life? Those who will spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year trying to keep a chronic illness under control, with little support from the general public. I can tell you that a person with severe mental illness will endure and conquer more in a lifetime in order to gain back any self respect or dignity that he/she once had. We are looking at one of the oldest stigmas known to man and something has to change. Thank you!


  1. Hi Amber,

    The treatment of prisoners is very close to my heart. I can still remember walking the cell blocks of Alktraze (not sure if that's how you spell it, but it's that prison in San Franscio they no longer use.) At one point, before I was diagnosed, I was actually going to change my major to be a criminal psycologist. And now that I am part of the mental health community, I know even more. I know in this state if you are sent to prision. EVEN IF YOU HAVE A DIAGONSED MENTAL ILLNESS, they won't give you your medicine. I know one biopolar man who did time, who is VERY good a mediation because that's the only way he survived prison. There was another guy when I was in Four Winds that choose a six month jail sentence rather than go to rehab for alcholoism. Also it makes me want to cry whenever I get infront of the mental health clinic and I see that police car. In Saratoga County the psychiatrist just don't have time to get to the prison so the prisoners come to them. It's humliating. The prisoner has to sit in the waiting room with arms and legs shackled with a cop. Then they are called in and the cop listen right outside the door. Prisons really need to reformed. I am so mad they changed basic cable channel 78 to the Catholic Channel (don't tell Conan I said that, he watches that when no ones home). I miss National Geographic with LockDown, Lock up Aboard, etc. Well, I just feel passionate about. Thanks for giving this issue some voice.

    Hugs from your friend,

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  3. Here in the UK both mental health care facilities and prisons are in short supply. From what little I know of the prison system here, staff do their level best and do get medics in, but prison staff even when they try to be compassionate are not trained in mental health.

    I am simply dumbfounded to here that in the States the situation is even worse. There is a feeling here that criminals try to 'get-off' by stating they are mentally ill. All I can say is they don't fool anyone here as psychiatrists are hot on assessment. The idiots don't seem to twig that when you're really ill the last thing you will accept is that you're ill. With modern prisons in the UK there's not a lot in it with regard to the daily routines aside from being locked in a cell at night.

    Only 3% of murders in the UK are committed by the mentally ill and yet mainstream society regards all the mentally ill as potential murderers or at the very least likely to be violent.

    There are two root causes of mental illness, genetics and environment. Anyone who has been diagnosed find the cause is a mix of those two elements and each individual will be different as to the proportions. The best we can currently manage regarding genetics chemical imbalances, mis-wiring etc is a patch it over system of treatments which at least can help people gain some control of their condition. The greater level of progress should be by now in environment.

    The prospect of improved health when locked in a prison with no medical attention I would estimate are about zero. Totally disgusted. All power to you in getting laws changed. Will be rooting for you all the way.