Shameful Numbers: There are 10 Persons with Serious Mental Illness in Jail for Every One In a Hospital

Prison Industrial Complex #occupysanquentin

Prison Industrial Complex #occupysanquentin (Photo credit: @bastique)

From Psychiatric News Alert: Ten times more individuals with serious mental illness are residing in state prisons and county jails today than in the nation’s state psychiatric hospitals, according to a new study released today by the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC). “The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey” found that in 44 states the largest institution housing people with severe psychiatric disease is a prison or jail. Nationwide, the study reports that there are an estimated 356,000 mentally ill inmates compared with 35,000 public-hospital patients.

The survey provides state-by-state illustrations of how protocols for treating mentally ill inmates who are deteriorating or acutely ill create obstacles that leave inmates without treatment for extended periods or indefinitely, especially in county jails. The report also contains several recommendations, including use of court-ordered outpatient treatment—deemed by the Department of Justice to be an evidence-based practice for reducing crime and violence—to help at-risk individuals live more safely and successfully in the community. 

“The lack of treatment for seriously ill inmates is inhumane and should not be allowed in a civilized society,” said psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., founder of TAC and lead author of the study. “This is especially true for individuals who – because of their mental illness – are not aware they are sick and therefore refuse medication.” 

In comments to Psychiatric News, Torrey said:

Prison doors

Prison doors (Photo credit: rytc)

“It is remarkable that we have let this situation deteriorate to this point. Jails and prisons are not built to be mental hospitals, and corrections personnel are neither hired nor trained to be mental health workers. We have returned to the situation that existed in the 1830s when Dorothea Dix began the reform movement to get mentally ill persons removed from jails and prisons and put into hospitals. The fact that we are where we were almost 200 years ago should give us all pause.” 

To read more on this subject, including strategies to reverse the trend, see the Psychiatric News article, “Judges, Psychiatrists Confer on Handling Mental Illness in Justice System.” Also see “Prevalence of Mental Illnesses in U.S. State Prisons: A Systematic Review” in Psychiatric Services in Advance.

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