How can we help those suffering from mental health disorders during their time in jail?

“In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help” (NAMI). The continuous confusion that is associated with mental health in inmates is an unsolved issue yet impacts many in prison. The topic I chose for this project is the treatment of mental health disorders for prisoners and the ways in which they are handled. A mental health illness is defined as a disorder that is “typically associated with a disruption in normal thinking, feeling, mood, behavior, interpersonal interactions, or daily functioning” (“Mental Illness”). Typically, when we think of illnesses such as anxiety or depression, we associate therapy as a way of treatment. However, do inmates receive the same type of help as everyday people do?To read more about how I became interested in this topic, feel free to read my personal interest essay. 

 The history of this issue:

Mental health in our society has always been a prevalent issue. However, only beginning in the 1960s, have people become aware of inmates suffering during their time in prison. For people living their regular day to day lives in the 1960s, finding help was a simple task as therapists and psychologists were open to listening to people’s problems and offering advice. For prisoners at this time, was it easy to find help as well? The simple answer is no. This issue received minimal involvement for finding a solution. Teplin states that, “‘if [prisons] don’t provide services, [they’re] not punishing the prisoner, [they’re] punishing [themselves] because that person will continue to engage in illegal behavior’” (Cindy Schreuder).

In prisons not intervening and not creating solutions to aid this social injustice, crime rates did not decrease as Schreuder states they would have if prisons provided services. However, because this issue only became relevant starting in the early 60’s, finding answers has proved to take a longer time than it should have. One specific program attempted to “reunite women who stay off of drugs with their children, offer parenting classes and counseling, help them get GEDs and find employment” (Cindy Schreuder).  However, the program was not fully adopted, and the crisis of mental health in prisons remained the same or increased since it was put in place. This is because although the program gave opportunities for women to get back on their feet after their time in prison, it did not necessarily help them deal with their mental well being.

According to a survey that was conducted across jails of different levels, “jail inmates had the highest rate of symptoms of a mental health disorder (60%), followed by State (49%), and Federal prisoners (40%)”( James, Doris J., and Lauren E. Glaze), yet cooperation to help this emergency was rare or ineffective. Seeing as these numbers are very high, more effective programs should have been put in place to try and resolve this issue at the time. 

How were these disorders discovered and assessed? In order to be diagnosed with a mental illness, one had to fit the criteria assigned. For example, in 2006, “to meet the criteria for major depression, inmates had to report a depressed mood and decreased interest or pleasure in activities, along with 3 additional symptoms of depression. In order to meet the criteria for mania, inmates had to report 3 symptoms during the 12-month period. For a psychotic disorder, 1 symptom of delusions or hallucinations met the criteria” ( James, Doris J., and Lauren E. Glaze). No matter what a prisoner felt on the inside, they were judged purely by their diagnosis on a piece of paper. The criteria was limited, offering minimal help for those who dealt with mental health disorders yet didn’t meet the criteria exactly.

Reported in 2000, “many of the “advantages” available to prison inmates [were] lacking in jails, such as recreational activities, educational and occupational programs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and physical and mental health services”(Lindquist, Christine H). Despite the fact that inmates are in prison for a crime they most likely committed, this should not be a reason to strip people of their basic needs including seeking help to try and further prevent worse mental illnesses. In 1966, it was stated that if “we can intervene successfully with these people, we’ll have less recidivism, lower costs. … [inmates] could become productive members of society and pay taxes’” (Cindy Schreuder).  By assessing these disorders correctly and with a sense of importance for the people suffering, Schreuder believes that inmates who receive help can help benefit society and better themselves as humans as well. To read more about the history of this issue, click here

What you need to know:

The need for more efforts to step up and bring help to the table is needed now more than ever as specific county jails have “nearly double the inmate population” (McDermott, Jim). This injustice needs to be solved now and it needs to stop being pushed back as the issue will only continue to become larger. As these numbers are unfortunately increasing as time goes by, it is essential that a strong plan be put into action to help those with mental illnesses. These numbers affect those specifically with mental illness limiting the amount of treatment one could receive. The people living with these disorders are often misrepresented, and “individuals with mental illness are not only disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system; they also are disproportionately likely to fail under correctional supervision” (Skeem, Jennifer L., et al.). Despite the fact that these people are or were criminals, they still deserve the support and help they need. This “help” is not a want, but should be considered needed during their time in prison and continuing for a while after, to prevent further crime. New research shows that “mental health needs of its inmates has gone up an astonishing 40 percent over the last three years”(McDermott, Jim). This is because a solution has not been put in place to resolve this issue. In another three years, if there is no change, what will happen to that 40 percent? This is why the need for help is more urgent now than ever. The criminals, despite the fact that they have committed a crime, deserve a second chance to fix their mental well being whether they are in jail or not. A second chance will not only benefit the person receiving the treatment, but their family, friends and community.

The different types of mental health disorders throughout prisoners 

It is important to hear the unfiltered and true stories of people going through similar experiences and that is why NAMI created the Stepping Up Initiative. This initiative developed “31 days, 31 stories”. For 31 days in the month of May (mental health month), different people speak out about their experiences and how their mental well being was overlooked and seen as not important. Their hope is that people will see how urgent this issue is after reading real stories from people whose mental health was not a priority. Fortunately, because this issue of mistreatment has gained traction and attention more recently, more changes are starting to happen. For example, the CSG justice center led “ ‘an unprecedented national effort to help local, state, and federal policymakers and criminal justice and mental health professionals improve the response to people with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system’” (Skeem, Jennifer L., et al.). In doing so, by trying to treat mental health disorders as soon as possible, this will limit and prevent later crimes and help the patient in general as well. If this plan were to be executed properly, less people would be going into prisons or jails at a county or local level resulting in a decreased population. However, just because numbers in jails would be decreasing, does not mean that the need for prescribed drugs and treatment is not. A study performed in 2018 found that, “even as the numbers in California’s jails had been going down, the number of county jail inmates requiring psychotropic drugs had gone up by 25 percent” (McDermott, Jim). Although making the numbers smaller would be ideal, the numbers that are still in jail, still require and need help. Whether the treatment is defined as therapeutic activities, meetings with a counselor, prescribed drugs, the need for it is only increasing. To read more about this issue in the present day, click here

For now: 

Micro steps you can take: 

  1.  Educate yourself on this topic! By educating and becoming invested in this topic, you can then raise awareness in your own community.  
  2. Join or donate to an organization. There are lots of new but small organizations reaching out to help this issue and increasing the following behind them would raise even more awareness. You can also donate here  to provide access to mental health support to “ensure that no one is alone on their mental health journey” (NAMI). 

Macro Steps: 

  1. When individuals are in jail giving them access to needed medication and support (NAMI). Keeping people out of jail is one solution, but if that is not an option, providing funding and support would be the next big step to take.  
  2. Keeping people out of correctional centers and creating more community based places for inmates with mental health disorders to attend. What these people do not need is to be placed in confined cells, isolated from human connection. Creating more community based centers, can provide easier access to treatment and support while still being providing supervision by professionals who deal with mental health. 
  3.  “Urging initiatives such as bail reform and a focus on community services that would keep people out of jail” (NAMI). Instead of putting people right into jail, giving them other opportunities to find another way to spend what would be their time in jail, would reduce numbers and make it easier for them to find treatment. 
  4. Alter the criteria to make it more universal and inclusive when assessing one with a mental health disorder. Currently the criteria to be diagnosed with any disorder is very limited and all of the “boxes” need to be crossed off to be diagnosed. Changing the assessment would give more people a chance to receive treatment even in less severe cases.

Works Cited:  


Please feel free to comment or ask questions in the comment forum below. How do you think we should assess this issue? 

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Angela

    Amazing presentation, Abigail! It is a shame that inmates cannot receive the psychiatric treatment they need. This issue also brings out the question if prison is actually serving its purpose. What good comes from locking inmates in, punishing them, and restricting medical care? After serving their time in prison, they come out to society more vulnerable and hurt than they were before. I think prison should be a rehabilitation center where inmates have access to education and emotional development resources in a controlled environment. Then, we give them a chance to come out to society as a beneficial member. Yes, taxes are paying for these rehabilitation systems, but looking at the bigger picture, our money is being used to create a safer community for us. We are helping inmates in the short-run, but we are helping ourselves in the long-run.

  2. April 27, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

    Nice job, Abby.

    I think we should address this issue using your third macro solution: bail reform. The criminalization of poverty is a significant factor in America’s increasing incarceration rates, and has landed a lot of people in jail.

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