We are jailing the mentally ill

Nobody would question that a prison will do little to nothing to resolve serious and debilitating psychiatric disorders of individuals residing there. However, prisons appear to be ten times more likely to house mentally ill individuals than are hospitals.

The Treatment Advocacy Center reports that 356,268 mentally ill individuals have been detained in state or county jails. State mental hospitals, on the other hand, only hold 35,000 patients. There are only six states in the U.S. that house more mentally ill individuals in psychiatric hospitals than in prisons or jails, and North Carolina is not one of them.

Recent trends concerning our mental health policies are not encouraging. TAC reported that available beds at state mental health agencies have been reduced by 10 percent.

Treatment for the mentally ill within the criminal justice system appears not to have kept up with an increasing population. “Inmates who linger untreated in jails and prisons become increasingly more vulnerable to their symptoms and the resulting victimization or violence,” stated one advocate for mentally ill inmates.

Conditions do not appear to be improving. There have been complaints that one prison that was created for mentally ill inmates has been overrun by rats. A Senate panel in February called for ending solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and the mentally ill.

It would benefit everyone if mentally ill people find professional help. This help will often prevent these people from instead being returned to prison. Criminal defense attorneys besides representing people charged with crime often can get these individuals in touch with the resources that they need.