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Addressing Mental Health in Prisons
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ONC Editorial

Jan 18, 2024

Mental health is one of the most common issues that prisons face today. Not only can individuals get sentenced to prison time due to their mental illness instead of receiving proper mental healthcare, but they are likely to develop mental health issues while in prison. This is a huge cause of concern because there are limited mental health aid resources available to prisoners.

Big Picture:


Mental health is one of the most common issues that prisons face today. Not only can individuals get sentenced to prison time due to their mental illness instead of receiving proper mental healthcare, but they are likely to develop mental health issues while in prison. This is a huge cause of concern because there are limited mental health aid resources available to prisoners.

 

Graphic from: “Many Californians in Prisons and Jails Have Mental Health Needs.” California Budget and Policy Center, 21 Dec. 2021, https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/prisons-and-jails-have-mental-health-needs/. This figure illustrates the number of people incarcerated who do not receive mental health care compared to the number who do receive mental health care.

 

Graphic from: “Reverse Voxsplaining: Prison and Mental Illness.” Slate Star Codex, 22 July 2020, https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/03/07/reverse-voxsplaining-prison-and-mental-illness/. This figure illustrates that a significant number of people with mental illnesses are ending up in prisons rather than mental hospitals.


Operative Definitions: 


Schizophrenia: A disorder that affects a person's ability to think, feel and behave clearly.
Psychotic disorder: A mental disorder characterized by a disconnection from reality.
Depression: A serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.
Mania: Extremely elevated and excitable mood usually associated with bipolar disorder.
Anxiety: Intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Fast heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating and feeling tired may occur.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.
Post-Incarceration Syndrome (PICS): A set of symptoms that are present in many currently incarcerated and recently released prisoners that are caused by prolonged incarceration with few opportunities for education, job training or rehabilitation.

Important Facts and Statistics:


In 44 states, a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital.
On average, in 2018, the cost of holding people (with mental illness) in federal custody was $102.60 per day per adult, or $37,449 a year (the total cost per inmate without mental illness averaged $33,274).
Lasting effects of incarceration: post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, altered decision-making, depression and mania.

5-Point Plan:


Provide treatment for prison inmates with serious mental illnesses.
The first and most important change is to implement better access to mental health treatment for prisoners. This can be in the form of counseling, medicine and therapy. To take it a step further, inmates could be transferred to mental hospitals if need be. Overall, it would be a great step to see more collaboration between mental hospitals and prisons. 


Fix the overcrowding problem in prisons. 
Overcrowding and lack of privacy are huge factors in the mental health decline among prisoners. Overcrowding can be fixed by increasing system capacity, shortening the sentence for non-violent offenders or turning to alternative punishments, such as community service. 


Provide more activities for the prisoners. 
Many prisoners have stated that their mental health has declined due to a lack of meaningful activities in prison. To combat this, prisons should promote more clubs and activities that align with the prisoners’ interests, and/or add job-ready classes. This could help the prisoners feel more confident both during and after imprisonment.


Allow more positive social interactions. 
Negative interactions can be another cause of declining mental health, so to combat this, prisons should find ways to allow their prisoners to have more positive interactions. An example of this could be promoting more pen pal programs for prisoners to give them the chance to meet new people and make connections.


Ban solitary confinement in all prisons.
Solitary confinement is an extreme practice of isolation used when a prisoner “acts out,” or misbehaves. However, many researchers claim that solitary confinement is ineffective and can be detrimental to the prisoner’s mental health. Banning solitary confinement will help increase the mental health status of prisons for the better and allow those in charge to focus on more positive techniques that won't be detrimental to mental health. 


Why This Initiative is Important:


Prisoners must be allowed access to mental health resources the same way that most non-incarcerated Americans get access to mental health resources. Prisoners face many factors that can contribute to a decline in one’s mental health and there should be measures put in place to counteract this. 

 

Acknowledgments:

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author, whose information can be found below.


The following student worked on this nonpartisan proposal: Kallie Fox, Purdue University.


Note: Not all participants agree with every aspect of this proposal. To arrive at a proposal that takes multiple views into account requires compromise and difficult decisions. For individual commentary on this proposal and more detail, go to JoinONC.com. We invite you to add your comments as well.


Sources:


Carroll, Heather. “Serious Mental Illness Prevalence in Jails and Prisons.” Treatment Advocacy 

Center, https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/evidence-and-research/learn-more-about/3695. 

Initiative, Prison Policy. “Mental Health.” Prison Policy Initiative, 

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/mental_health/. 

“Many Californians in Prisons and Jails Have Mental Health Needs.” California Budget and 

Policy Center, 21 Dec. 2021, https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/prisons-and-jails-have-mental-health-needs/. 

“Mental Health Treatment While Incarcerated.” NAMI, 

https://www.nami.org/Advocacy/Policy-Priorities/Improving-Health/Mental-Health-Treatment-While-Incarcerated. 

“Reverse Voxsplaining: Prison and Mental Illness.” Slate Star Codex, 22 July 2020, 

https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/03/07/reverse-voxsplaining-prison-and-mental-illness/.

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