Incarcerating America’s Ill: The Negligence of Incarcerated Americans’ Mental Health

By Nia Kaudo

2018-01-22-13-24-law.stanford.eduAs BARS has illustrated in the past, the carceral state is contrived of countless destructive elements that create unending hardships in the lives of millions of Americans every single day. It goes without saying that the mental health conditions of these citizens fall below the standard that free Americans experience in our lives, due in part to overcrowded conditions, misallocation of funds, and a scarcity of willing and capable professions to provide the appropriate assessments and services. This leaves incarcerated people and their families once again feeling a sense of powerlessness and a loss of hope for the assistance they need.

Historically in the United States, mentally ill people have been grossly neglected and in many cases abused by their caregivers, whom in many cases worked for specialized institutions. During the 20th century, reforms were passed to set standards, regulations, and increase oversight for the care of mentally disabled people. However, despite the increased codification of institutional management of mentally ill Americans, the number of institutions and their occupants continued to grow. Bernard Hartcourt in his article “From the Asylum to the Prison” claimed that the public is used to “thinking of confinement through the lens of incarceration only, and to referring to the period prior to the mid-1970s as one of ‘relative stability’ followed by an exponential rise”, however he challenged people to look at the aggregated rise of institutions preceding the War on Drugs as well[i]. The mass criminalization of Americans during the latter part of the 20th century, did still create a visible shift from the use of mental institutions to the use of carceral confinement.

American’s who are familiar with prominent criminal justice depictions in the media may also be under the impression that any mentally ill person can be easily committed to a mental health institution rather than serving a sentence in a correctional facility. However, a 2006 Bureau of Justice Report revealed that nearly 800,000 individuals who met the criteria of mentally ill as defined by the law, were being held in correctional facilities in the United States.[ii] A co-published report from Stanford Law School found that the number of mentally ill people held in California jails and prisons has doubled over the past 15 years to a whopping 45% (see chart above).[iii] These rates have exploded with the rise of mass criminalization and a shift in disciplinary measures in the United States. The Treatment Advocacy Center also asserts that re-offending rates for mentally ill inmates is even higher than the average rate for inmates in America. But the Center also shows through their research that programs and services for these individuals during their incarceration decreases the likelihood off recidivating.[iv] If the American people can continue to rebuke the current carceral state and draw attention to the plethora issues that are buried beneath its façade, then we can all participate in taking our representatives to task and creating institutions that operate on humanity, compassion, and effectiveness.

[i] Harcourt, Bernard E. “From the asylum to the prison: Rethinking the incarceration revolution.” Tex. L. Rev. 84 (2005): 1755

[ii] James, Doris J., and Lauren E. Glaze. “Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report (2006).

[iii] Steinberg, Darrell, David Mills, and Michael Romano. “When did prisons become acceptable mental healthcare facilities.” Retrieved from (2015).

[iv] Torrey, E. Fuller, Aaron D. Kennard, Don Eslinger, Richard Lamb, and James Pavle. “More mentally ill persons are in jails and prisons than hospitals: A survey of the states.” Arlington, VA: Treatment Advocacy Center (2010).

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