Are Prisons Our Best Mental Health Solution?

By Olivia Libowitz 
Elm Staff Writer

In 2016, a Slate article wrote, “America’s prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill.” This is an uncomfortable, yet true, fact, related to the actuality that prisons have always been businesses. Prisons in America make money per inmate, and that money comes from taxpayers, and those taxpayers support a system that continues the mistreatment of the mentally ill every year.

There are many issues with the way prisons are run in America. There is rampant reported and uninvestigated sexual assault in prisons. According to a 2007 survey from the National Institute of Mental Health, one in two mentally ill inmates is sexually assaulted. There is also the fact that prisons systematically work to cut off inmates from the outside world, which has been proven to make it harder for them to return to normal life or maintain emotional stability while in prison. County jails and federal prisons still enforce collect calls on the families of inmates who wish to contact them, which makes communication difficult considering how many inmates are from low-income families.

The prison system is a business, and its goods are the prisoners. It is easy to arrest certain types over others. The War on Drugs was a huge success for prisons, as lower class black communities were caught up in the epidemic, and it was easy to convict black, mostly male, individuals, and put them in prison. Today, the drug epidemic is mostly found in middle class white communities, so a newer underprivileged demographic has become target for incarceration: the mentally ill.

According to Mental Health America, 1.2 million Americans with mental illnesses are in prison today. In 2012, the majority of those convicted of minor crimes with severe mental illness were in prisons rather than psychiatric hospitals. In fact, in the same year, 356,268 of those inmates were in prisons compared to the 35,000 in mental hospitals. What this does is create an environment where mentally ill people, already some of the most abused in our society, are being utilized for financial gain. This further emphasizes that the goal of the American prison system is economic growth, rather than rehabilitating and assisting society.

I have a family member in prison in Florida. He is mentally ill, with severe agoraphobia, depression, and schizophrenia. He’s been to prison several times; this past one was for a capital offense. There is no question that he should be in prison for the most recent crime, but he did commit this crime while having a schizophrenic episode. The first two crimes he committed were car theft, also while having episodes where he was being told to steal the cars. Here’s where the backwards prison system comes into play.

States with low mental health care and high incarceration rates—such as Florida, which is 49th in mental health care, along with Alabama and Mississippi who are 50th and 48th, respectively—have a funneling system in which they start with a large subset of convicts and work to channel them into prisons. From the outside, however, it looks as though they support mental health. Florida, for example, spent $50 million dollars a year on sending people into mental health care. How is this not a contradiction?

They take criminals who have been convicted of minor crimes—such as theft—and send them to psychiatric wards where they are rehabilitated and drilled on court-based questions. The goal? Getting them just mentally fit enough to see trial without pulling an insanity plea. A convict will get the help they need, but only to an extremely calculated point.

In a Tampa Bay Times article, “Definition of Insanity,” published in 2015, Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman discusses his disgust with Florida state spending, saying “the way we spend money now is ludicrous.” The money spent on sending non-violent criminals to temporary mental help that doesn’t do much to for them wastes an obscene amount of tax-payer money, on top of what they’ll pay the state per inmate once these people are incarcerated.

If prisons allocated money to sending minor criminals to mental health facilities full time, or until they were fully rehabilitated, many major crimes that are occasionally committed later on could be prevented. Many major crimes are brought on by the trauma of non-violent, mentally ill offenders being put into prison with violent criminals, where they are incredibly likely to be attacked and assaulted.

Focusing on mental health rehabilitation would save the state and tax-payers money, would protect civilians, and would protect the mentally ill criminals themselves. Until our nation proves that it believes in rehabilitation and healing over money and personal gain, the American prison system will be a shameful chasm upon the surface of our country, into which we continue to fall.


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