An Argument for Increased Mental Health Care in Our Jails and Prisons

Why our current system is an ineffective, unsustainable business model

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The questions when discussing mental health in corrections

Are they criminals because they’re mentally ill, or is this something exasperated with onset symptoms occurring while incarcerated? Would people still have committed the criminal act if their mental illness had been treated before it lead to incarceration? It is another version of the age-old “chicken or the egg” conundrum. A 2014 report from the American Psychological Association, states that 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners report mental health concerns, with substance abuse also rampant and often co-occurring. Would these numbers be reduced with adequate resources devoted to mental health treatment, prior to, and during, incarceration?

Our prisons are overcrowded

Every prison in the state of Wisconsin is over capacity. As of 2018 there were 23,657 individuals incarcerated in the Wisconsin State prison system. If the averages hold true, 12,161 inmates currently behind bars have a diagnosable mental illness. If each inmate costs roughly $36,000 a year (costs range between minimum to maximum offenders, male and female) that is approximately $437 million a year we potentially spend on inmates with mental illnesses, in Wisconsin alone. What else could this money be used for? Inmate education programs, job training, behavioral programming, staff raises, infrastructure improvements, investing in technology?

Objections I hear

I’ve heard many objections to increasing mental health programming in the community and in the criminal justice system. “You’re just being soft! You’re a bleeding-heart!” “They deserve it” “They did the crime, they do the time.” Believe me, I thought the same thing before I worked in a prison, until I was face to face with folks who were incarcerated suffering from severe mental illnesses. I’ll admit, before working in the field I had a skewed perception of the mentally ill. We see them in popular culture as crazed lunatics, blood-thirsty and violent (think Jack Nicholson in The Shining), but I soon learned that with the proper programming and medications they acted just like any other “normal” person. Without the green jumpsuit on you wouldn’t even know some of them were criminal offenders.

Is there a better way?

I’ve seen multiple cases where inmates, struggling with mental illness, become productive inmates when diagnosed and treated correctly. In one case, Josh (name changed) was originally sentenced for two-years for burglary and fleeing an officer. He stretched that initial two years into ten years due to behavioral violations and new charges incurred while incarcerated. He admitted to lashing out at other inmates and correctional staff due to anger, depression, and unmet mental health needs exasperated by past trauma/abuse as a child. Before he got the mental health treatment he actually needed he was getting into fights, lashing out verbally, distrustful of others, attacking officers, failing programs. While incarcerated he was charged with battery to an officer and criminal damage to property for fighting, both in adult prisons and going back to his time in juvenile facilities.

We all want the same things: safer communities, less crime, less recidivism, a reduced prison population, safer environments for staff, and to have the resources we need to do our jobs safely and effectively. We all want offenders to be successful after release, to be contributing members of the community through working and paying taxes; a giver not a taker.

Once Josh’s mental health needs were addressed, he flourished, even while incarcerated. He led peer groups, he spoke to college students on group tours, and he mentored others in prison by telling his story, trying to give back. His goal when released is to work with youth in the juvenile justice system and in community programming, to prevent them from going down his path, he wants to give back to his community.

A poor business model

I’d like to think of myself as a rational person, that we should do the most with what we have in order to help the most people possible. If you think of what we do in criminal justice in comparison to a business, as providing a service or a product, then what product do we want to put back into our community? A poor quality product (the offender) that has a great potential for warranty defects (reoffending) and will need to get sent back to the company (corrections) for repairs?

In conclusion

Focusing on mental health is a way to improve the quality of what we do, make us safer, and save us money. What have we got to lose? We’ve been doing it this way for over 40 years and are bursting at the seams, both in terms of financial viability and capacity to take in new inmates; inmates that may deserve to be incarcerated more based on the severity of their crimes. Tired of the “slap on the wrists” to the offender who commits a crime and gets a reduced/short prison sentence? Where else can you put them in an already over-crowded prison system?! They’re already full with the mentally ill!

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Just a guy who is motivated to share my experiences and help others. Husband. Father. Educator.

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