Someone in a hoodie obscuring their face clutching at metal bars on a dim day outside.
Prison Health Issues

The True Facts About Mental Illness Behind Bars & Mass Incarceration

When prisons can’t address mental illnesses properly for inmates, it becomes a larger issue of cruel and unusual punishment leading to mass incarceration.

1.2 million individuals are in jails and prisons each year. Between 300,000 and 400,000 are incarcerated on any given day. These are overwhelming figures for those individuals living with mental illness in the United States.

Mental Health & Mass Incarceration

To say the US has a problem with mass incarceration is a vast understatement. The treatment of prison inmates with mental illnesses reflects it.

Someone in a hoodie obscuring their face clutching at metal bars on a dim day outside.
Being a prisoner with mental illness means you’re not only set apart from society, but from fellow inmates as well. Image Source: University of Birmingham

Most of the incarcerations don’t even begin with extreme offenses. According to Mental Health America, many offenders:

“…involvement with the criminal justice system begins with low-level offenses like jaywalking, disorderly conduct, or trespassing.”

If there is anything the criminal justice system has shown, it is many structures are in place to keep these individuals cycling through the justice system.

The process is exacerbated by the fact that mentally ill inmates receive little to no support while incarcerated. For those with mental illnesses, this reality holds doubly true.

A Look Inside Prisons & How They Treat Inmates with Mental Illnesses

Because of the overcrowding of jails and prisons, people are often misevaluated and inadequately supported. This increases their vulnerability and worsens the symptoms of mental illnesses.

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Even if someone with a mental illness does gain access to a mental health professional, it is likely that the professional will not have sufficient training. Or, they simply will not have the time to offer the support the individual living with mental illness needs.

There are many within the criminal justice system who have the training and desire to help. The trouble is, they may not be able to reach those who need the help the most.

Those with severe mental illnesses are placed in high security conditions and often will be isolated. This tends to lead to a very high prison suicide rate, especially among women in one particular California prison: California Institution for Women AKA CIW.

Shaylene "Light Blue" Graves added to the state's high suicide rates when she took her own life in a CIW prison in 2016.
Shaylene “Light Blue” Graves added to the state’s high suicide rates when she took her own life in a CIW prison in 2016. Click here to read more.

The few cases where mental health professionals can provide care, the individuals will have to be bound throughout the care. These conditions only exacerbate mental illness.

Unfortunately, this is not the worst of the conditions. There are a class of prisons known as “supermax.” These supermax prisons seek to reduce violence and aggression within prisons by creating:

“…an extremely harsh environment which includes extreme isolation and sensory deprivation” (Mental Health America 2015).

Many have expressed concerns the conditions constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Also, it will worsen existing mental health issues and induce illness in otherwise healthy inmates.

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Mental Illness in America’s Prisons: Taking Action

The fortunate reality is, this situation isn’t all doom and gloom. There have been court cases (the United States Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Plata) where the system has relieved individuals of deplorable circumstances in prisons.

Still, more pressure is needed to keep the spiral from continuing. Retroactive action doesn’t save those who experienced injustices prior to intervention.

It isn’t reasonable to expect the government to be able to catch every circumstance of injustice to those with mental illness.

What Can We Do as a Society?

It is most helpful to consider a few facts, to see where pressure can be applied:

  • Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended
  • Students who have been suspended or expelled are three times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system within the next year
  • Students who have been in the juvenile justice system are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system (MHA 2015)

These facts make it clear: the earlier the issue of mental illness can be supported, the less likely someone with disabilities will end up in the justice system. In fact, the states with the highest rates of adult incarceration tend to be those with the least access to care. As members of our communities, that means:

  • Investing in means of support
  • Promoting informed screening for disabilities
  • Supporting community resources to educate about mental illness
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When we all take these steps and steps like these, the cycle will begin to be unravel.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.