The Mentally Ill, Behind Bars

We read this op-ed in the New York Times on January 15th. It is a reminder of a truth that we wish we could forget. The prison system has become the replacement for the psychiatric hospital. Almost all of the imprisoned could have benefited from supportive housing and treatment in the community. In addition, how many ended up in the prison system because they were homeless?

We look forward to your comments.

January 15, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
The Mentally Ill, Behind Bars
By BERNARD E. HARCOURT
Chicago

LAST August, a prison inmate in Jackson, Mich.  someone the authorities described as a psychotic died in his segregation cell, naked, shackled to a concrete slab, lying in his own urine, scheduled for a mental health transfer that never happened. Last month in Florida, the head of the states social services department resigned abruptly after having been fined $80,000 and is facing criminal contempt charges for failing to transfer severely mentally ill jail inmates to state hospitals.

Ten days ago, the Supreme Court agreed to determine when mentally ill death row inmates should be considered so deranged that their execution would be constitutionally impermissible. The case involves a 48-year-old Navy veteran who is a diagnosed schizophrenic. In the decade leading up to the crime he was hospitalized 14 times for severe mental illness.

According to a study released by the Justice Department in September, 56 percent of jail inmates in state prisons and 64 percent of inmates across the country reported mental health problems within the past year.

Though troubling, none of this should come as a surprise. Over the past 40 years, the United States dismantled a colossal mental health complex and rebuilt bed by bed an enormous prison. During the 20th century we exhibited a schizophrenic relationship to deviance.

After more than 50 years of stability, federal and state prison populations skyrocketed from under 200,000 persons in 1970 to more than 1.3 million in 2002. That year, our imprisonment rate rose above 600 inmates per 100,000 adults. With the inclusion of an additional 700,000 inmates in jail, we now incarcerate more than two million people resulting in the highest incarceration number and rate in the world, five times that of Britain and 12 times that of Japan.

To read the full article click here.