Stepping Up

Stepping Up BarsBy Chinaechelum Vincent


As discussed, mental health is a detrimental problem that plagues the criminal justice system in an entirety. In Philadelphia alone, 40 percent of inmates are being prescribed psychotropic medications and 17 percent have been diagnosed with serious mental illness.[1] With such a large population in need of treatment, the prisons exist in a state of disarray, where mental health services are in limited and the need is high and only increasing. According to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, in 2016 the city had an average of 6,989 prisoners in its system. In this year, there were a total of 16,542 referred visits related to mental health services with 97,795 prescribed medications.[2] The absurdly high numbers in 2016 are not a rarity, as this is the true reality of the clash of mental health and incarceration. The chief of medical operations described the county jails as, “the largest psychiatric hospitals in the state of Pennsylvania.”[3] The harsh reality is that the criminal justice system has begun warehousing those in need of treatment. These men and women require medical attention but are being increasingly locked behind bars.


On April 4, 2017, Philadelphia took initiative in battling the issue of mental health in its jails and prisons. Pennsylvania became the third state to adopt the Stepping Up Initiative, a program aimed at reducing the number of incarcerated inmates who are mentally ill[4]. The way the program works is by referencing the Stepping Up report, which is used nation-wide as a basis for the work of local leaders. The guide asks officials 6 questions[5]:

  1. Is our leadership committed?
  2. Do we conduct timely screening and assessments?
  3. Do we have baseline data?
  4. Have we conducted a comprehensive process analysis and inventory of services?
  5. Have we prioritized policy, practice, and funding improvements?
  6. Do we track progress?

This uniform attempt at regulating and improving the system will hold officials accountable and ensure that they are following a logical procedure when tackling such a significant issue. What this plan is to look like in Philadelphia is to “determine how mentally ill people interact with the criminal justice system and then figure out how to address the issues that are landing them there.”[6] It’s highly proven that these individuals get trapped in the cycle of recidivism due to their conditions and this needs to end. All actions through this program are rooted in data with hopes of accurate and effective results. The people of Philadelphia and all across the nation deserve the help and treatment they need, and the Stepping Up Initiative is one step in the right direction of battling the horrors of mass incarceration.

[1] Melamed, Samantha, “PA Targets Mental Illness in its Prisons”, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 2017.

[2] Melamed, Samanthat, “PA Targets Mental Illness”.

[3] Melamed, Samanthat, “PA Targets Mental Illness”.

[4] Vaughn, Joshua, “Pennsylvania Joins the Stepping Up Initiative”, The Sentinel, April 4, 2017.

[5] Haneberg, Rise, Tony Fabelo, Fred Osher, Michael Thompson, “Reducing the Number of People with Mental Illnesses in Jail”, Step Up Together, January 2017.

[6] “Stepping Up on Prison Reform”, Justice Center, April 5, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close