Nonprofit Newswire | A National Human Rights Scandal: Mentally Ill in U.S. Prisons

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May 13, 2010; Source: Boston Examiner.com | For every one mentally ill person in hospital in the U.S., there are more than three in prisons. In Texas there are eight in prison for every one in hospital. The plainly entitled report “More Mentally Ill Persons are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States” [PDF], was a joint effort of the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff’s Association, also asserts that 16% of those in prison have a serious mental illness. This compares to a 1983 finding when the percentage was 6.4%. “Thus in less than three decades, the percentage of mentally ill prisoners has almost tripled.” This report does not focus just on hospitals for the mentally ill versus imprisonment but looks at overall state budgets for “systems of care” for people with serious mental illness, testing the hypothesis that higher state budgets for treatment means lower rates of imprisonment. Sure enough, that’s the case.

The report also asserts that the proportional presence of people with mental illness in prison is achingly close to what it was in 1840, when it caused a national scandal and inspired a powerful reform movement that resulted in hospitals for the mentally ill. These hospitals, of course, became the focus of later attempts at reform where deinstitutionalization was the focus. Scandalously, many of the community supports that were to have replaced hospitals were never put in place and have left us with “one of the largest social disasters of the 20th century” with many seriously mentally ill people on the streets or cycling in and out of our jails and prisons. The really bad news is that Texas does not have the worst stats. If you were mentally ill in Nevada, you would be ten times more likely to end up in prison than in a hospital. In North Dakota, you’d have even odds—and those odds are the best there are in 21st century United States.

This report is a must read for anyone concerned about basic human rights, homelessness, community alternatives to incarceration, community health care, and community social safety nets.—Ruth McCambridge