Mental Health Issues in America’s Prisons

Originally published on


The incarcerated population of the United States now approaches 2.3 million, which is 22% of the world’s prisoners, despite the United States representing just 4.5% of the entire world’s population. This statistic can certainly be traced back to the state of mental health treatment in America, as a shortage of mental health facilities has contributed to the number of mentally ill people in prisons and jails across the country.

Mental Illness in American Correctional Facilities

It is estimated that serious mental illness affects about 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 6 men in jails and prisons around the U.S. This is about four to six times the rate of the general population. The United States now has ten times more mentally ill people in prisons and jails than in mental health institutions run by states.

Many people with mental illness were incarcerated for non-violent crimes, such as shoplifting or drug use. According to The Sentencing Project, states with less access to mental health services actually have morepeople in the criminal justice system.

A Lack of Community Mental Health Facilities

Deinstitutionalization in the 1960s has contributed to the growing problem of mental health issues in prisons and jails. When Medicaid was passed, coverage for mental health institutions was excluded, giving states an incentive to move mentally ill people out of mental health facilities and into nursing homes or hospitals.

The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967 then made it difficult to involuntarily hospitalize the mentally ill. Just one year later, the number of mentally ill people in correctional facilities had doubled. In 1981, President Reagan reversed Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act, blocking state grants and stopping federal funding in mental health services, decreasing federal spending on mental health in total by 30%.

By 2004, studies found that there were more than 300,000 mentally ill inmates, but just 100,000 psychiatric beds in hospitals. The Great Recession further restricted access to mental health care as more psychiatric facilities and hospitals were forced to close.

The Problem of Mental Illness and Incarceration

Prisons are not an ideal environment for the mentally ill, yet that is where many of these individuals end up. With a lack of treatment options, such as counseling and medication, people with mental health issues often exhibit behavior that prompts law enforcement action. The prison environment and isolation can worsen existing mental health issues, and these patients may pose a risk to other inmates. Inmates with mental health problems also represent a vulnerable group susceptible to mistreatment or abuse from other inmates, and even correctional officers.

Addressing the Problem of Mental Illness

There is no easy solution to addressing mental health issues plaguing American prison systems. Addressing the problem head on, however, will bring more light to the situation, which could help in recognizing this as a serious issue in our country. A few steps in the right direction may include reversing the budget cuts put in place that dismantled funding toward mental health services, developing localized, community mental health programs, and providing special treatment within hospitals following specific incidents relating to mental health.

Of course, these changes could prove costly in the beginning, but their long-term effects will save monumentally.

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