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Prisons and jails lack adequate mental health treatment for inmates

Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell | 9/8/2009, 10:58 a.m.

Prisons and jails lack adequate mental health treatment for inmates

The goal of America’s correctional facilities is supposed to be punishing criminals for wrongdoing and preparing them to re-enter our society. But the successful transition of inmates back to their communities is severely hampered by many factors, including the poor quality of mental health treatment in jails and prisons, as well as the inability of ex-convicts to obtain mental health counseling and medication once they are released.

Some experts argue that the root cause of this problem was a public policy decision several decades ago to deinstitutionalize mental health services, a process that closed many institutions across the country that once housed and treated people for mental illnesses.

The unfortunate reality, probably unintended, is that the nation’s prisons and jails now house far more people with mental illnesses than mental health facilities. This is fraught with problems — the nation’s overcrowded correctional facilities lack the resources, training or medicine to properly treat inmates needing mental health treatment.

In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study noting that more than half of all prison and jail inmates — including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of local jail inmates — were found to have mental health problems. Even more troubling, their report said that only one in three state prisoners, one in four federal prisoners and one in six jail inmates who had mental health problems received treatment while incarcerated.

Still, federal, state and local officials have been slow to address this serious issue. However, the courts are condemning the inhumane conditions in prisons and joining with health activists, re-entry experts and community leaders to demand changes.

In California, for instance, federal judges issued an order on Aug. 4 that the prison population must be reduced by 40,000 inmates, or 25 percent of those incarcerated. The judges cited the horrible conditions, specifically referencing poor mental health treatment.

“The medical and mental health care available to inmates in the California prison system is woefully and constitutionally inadequate, and has been for more than a decade,” the judges wrote in their ruling. “Tragically, California’s inmates have long been denied … a minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious and often fatal … A significant number of inmates have died as a result.”

At the recent Freedom Voices Conference, sponsored by the Morehouse School of Medicine Community Voices Program, a panel of experts discussed the scope of the mental health problems at correctional facilities.

“Two of the largest mental health treatment facilities in the country are the Los Angeles County Jail and Rikers Island in New York,” said Dougherty County, Ga., Superior Court Judge Stephen S. Goss, who oversees the county superior court’s Mental Health/Substance Abuse Treatment Program. “Pick any state and you’ll pretty much find that more people are treated for mental health issues in their jails and prisons than any single or collective group of state hospitals and clinical facilities.”