Incarceration of the Mentally Ill

            As discussed in a previous post, a major gap exists between the mental health community and the criminal justice system. Most law enforcement officers are not properly trained to deal with situations of mental health crisis, which results in taking the individual into custody instead of transporting them to receive the treatment they need. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 2 million of the people booked in jails across the country have some sort of mental illness. Of the people that stay incarcerated in those jails, approximately 15% are male and 30% are female. Not only that, but 25% of all individuals of officer-involved shootings have a serious mental illness. These people are often jailed as a way to subdue them temporarily and neglects their health and healing. It is also common they are taken into custody for committing a crime in the midst of their crisis. As we’ve seen, there is not only a problem with incarcerating people who just simply need treatment, but there is also a problem with the way people with mental illnesses are treated while incarcerated.

            Human Rights Watch (HRW), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that researches, reports, and advocates for human rights across the globe, published a report called “Callous and Cruel.” It detailed the way that mental illness is dealt with within our prison systems. Abuse of these individuals is one of the most common ways correctional officers use to subdue an inmate with a mental illness. They are often pepper sprayed or tased, strapped down for hours or days, or sent to solitary confinement. The HRW report states that “inmates diagnosed with mental illness are disproportionately represented in the isolation units to which prison officials send their more difficult inmates”. This method, as well as violence, is often used as a punishment for unruly behavior due to mental illness, and not only as a last resort. Because prison is such a stressful environment, even when the behavior of a mentally ill inmate is non-violent or non-threatening, violence is often the primary response. Just like police officers, correctional officers within jails and prisons are not trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness, and therefore do not provide the proper treatment needed for these individuals, choosing violence and other forceful acts over verbal de-escalation tactics.

            Another problem that exists within the jail and prison systems is the lack of treatment and resources that people with an illness have access to. Inmates often do not have access to mental health professionals, if they even have the opportunity to be diagnosed in the first place. The primary form of treating mental illness in jails and prisons is through prisons, and very few (if any) therapeutic alternatives are available to inmates who would benefit from them. Because of a lack of funds within the prison system, mentally ill inmates simply lack the kinds of treatments and interventions that could relieve or at least ease their symptoms, and more importantly, help them rehabilitate and learn to cope with their illness. Reform is needed in prisons and jails to not only train staff how to effectively deal with mental illness among inmates, but also to provide the treatment and resources that those inmates desperately need.


“Callous and Cruel” Report:

NAMI “Cruel and Unusual” Blog Post:

Bureau of Justice Mental Health Report:

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) International: