We are criminalizing the mentally ill, placing them in understaffed and financially unequipped jails. On Rikers Island, the share of mentally ill prisoners has nearly doubled, while the overall population of prisoners has decreased.
Policy makers must focus on addressing the poor quality of mental health care services, especially when there are more mentally ill locked up in prisons, than in psychiatric centers.
Why have mentally ill individuals been swept up by our correctional system? Because criminal policies have disproportionately targeted the homeless and drug addicts.
A special report by the Bureau of Justice reports that mentally ill inmates from federal, state and local jails are more likely than regular prisoners to experience homelessness and to suffer from substance abuse and dependency.
Even with the considerable social disapproval of the “war on drugs” and the dissolution of mandatory sentencing for drug possession, the mentally ill, especially the homeless, continue to be arrested for minor crimes.
These crimes include prostitution, trespassing and disorderly conduct, all the result of life on the streets and homelessness. It is unfair to criminalize individuals who have been purposely forced into the streets by policy initiatives like the deinstitutionalization movement of the 60’s and rising rents.
Once in prisons, the lack of staff member training has made it difficult for prisons to property rehabilitate and treat the growing population of the mentally ill.
This lack of staff training is directly linked to the unnecessary use of violence that prison guards use against mentally ill inmates. Just in New York City alone, in 2014 there were 4,074 instances where prison guards used violence against inmates. In 129 cases, prisoners were hospitalized for severe injuries.
The culture of violence is a major problem in prisons, but it is more disconcerting when it jeopardizes the safety of those with mental disorders.
Solitary confinement has also affected mentally ill prisoners. In the name of securing the safety of other inmates, the mentally ill are often secluded from other inmates.
Mentally ill persons have their mental state worsen by the deplorable conditions of solitary confinement. The mental state of non-mentally ill young inmates is also compromised leading to more inmates with mental issues.
New York, Colorado and Michigan have already limited the longterm solitary confinement of serious mentally ill inmates. Training programs are needed to help prison employees develop better guidelines to effectively use solitary confinement if solitary confinement is to be used.
Policy makers should also develop rehabilitation institutions to help prisoners with mental disorders. We should find ways to compensate for the lack of community and state mental care centers available in communities.
Reforms can start with the existing 300 to 400 medical health courts. These courts, offering mandatory treatment services to mentally ill detainees, should remove the requirement that detainees need to declare themselves guilty to receive the treatments.
The federal and state government, must take action. A start would be to improve the evaluation and reporting to identify poor serving prisons. Most importantly, the federal government should support states in the administration of treatments and management of “re-entry” programs for mentally ill inmates.
This support could be achieved by increasing aid grants for programs under the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment Act, Crime Reduction act and Second Chance Act.
Mentally ill prisoners are vulnerable to social stigmatization for their illness and for being felons. Throughout history the mentally ill have been mis-deinstitutionalized, passed from one unequipped institution to another.
It is now in the interest of every individual — as a community — to help mentally ill prisoners become active members of society.
Camila Fernandez is a Ridgewood resident and student of public affairs at Baruch College.