Mental Health Problems and Disabilities in Prisons

The rates of mental health problems and disabilities in prisons continue to escalate without the proper resources within the system to manage and treat them effectively.

Many Inmates Have Mental Health Problems

The Department of Justice now estimates about 50% of all inmates have mental health problems. In 2009, Human Rights Watch gave a statement before the Senate Judiciary Committees Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law that highlighted the many reasons mental health problems and disabilities in prisons are going untreated or ineffectively treated:

  • Understaffing of qualified medical professionals.
  • Insufficient facilities in which correctional therapy programs can be housed.
  • Limited therapeutic programs to accommodate the needs of those with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons.
  • Lack of supporters inside the prisons for mental health programs.
  • Large caseloads that simply cannot be handled effectively by the available mental health staff.

This list of deficiencies within prisons across the country highlights the reason so many people with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons continually cycle in and out of prison cells with high recidivism rates. They arent receiving the care they need the first time around and their mental illness remains largely untreated as they are released back into society; most of them almost destined to repeat their crimes and once again come back to prison.

The ultimate question is where the responsibility to care for those with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons rests. Many people believe prison is a place for corrections and punishments of criminal behavior, not for treating mental illness.
Others counter with the fact that many of the facilities which typically treated the mentally ill in the past have been shut down, which has left many of societys mentally ill without the intervention and treatment needed to remain stable. It is believed that communities are no longer willing to financially support those who are mentally ill, which is leading more of them to commit crimes and seek treatment through the prison system.

While some prisons are equipped with mental health services that serve those with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons, these programs for the most part are exactly how Human Rights Watch described them in their Senate subcommittee hearing: underfunded, understaffed, and largely inefficient.

Alternative Mental Health Services

The number of those with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons continues to grow and along with it grows concern from human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch. The concern is that the current criminal justice system is not set up to manage those with mental and physical disabilities and is releasing these prisoners back into society with little to no real treatment for their conditions.

While there is a big push for increased mental health services and programs for those with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons, there are also some recommendations coming forth about removing non-violent offenders who have these problems from the standard prison environment altogether. Since many people with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons are made worse by their stay in the prison cell, why not create mental health facilities which can better serve their needs?

Is it possible that creating separate courts and facilities for those with mental health problems or disabilities could cut down on the number of prisons being locked up over time?

Many believe it is possible, since people with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons have a much higher rate of recidivism than others who commit similar crimes without a mental disorder or disability.

Funding for Correctional Therapies for Prisoners

The biggest problem with treating individuals with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons today is not the lack of devoted, passionate mental health personnel. Despite prison guards and other staff who have been noted over the years for isolating the mentally ill as problem makers, most prisons do have dedicated staff members who recognize the need for correctional therapy programs for those with mental health problems and disabilities in prisons.

The problem is most prisons do not have the funding to treat the millions of prisoners who need the help. What programs are in place tend to be largely inadequate for the immense job they set out to accomplish.