Our Shameful Treatment of the Incarcerated Mentally Ill

Our Shameful Treatment of the Incarcerated Mentally Ill

I was compelled to write about our shameful treatment of the incarcerated mentally ill after listening to KQED’s The California Report program, titled: “Lawmakers Push for More Mental Health Spending,” by April Dembosky. In her story, Ms. Dembosky reported Darrell Steinberg, California’s Senate president pro Tem and his allies “…want to spend $132 million on efforts aimed at reducing the number of people with mental illness who are incarcerated, and lowering recidivism rates of people who are released from prison, then re-offend because they could not get proper mental health treatment.”

In this photo taken as part of federal litigation over California prison conditions, prisoners await a group therapy session at Mule Creek State Prison. How could being confined in tiny cages dissuade prisoners from committing suicide? – Photo filed in U.S. District Court briefings. Caption and photo are both copied from San Francisco Bay View's article, Motion Denied, Governor: Medical neglect is still killing prisoners, http://sfbayview.com/2013/motion-denied-governor-medical-neglect-is-still-killing-prisoners/

“In this photo taken as part of federal litigation over California prison conditions, prisoners await a group therapy session at Mule Creek State Prison. – Photo filed in U.S. District Court briefings.” Caption and photo are both copied from San Francisco Bay View’s article, “Motion Denied, Governor: Medical neglect is still killing prisoners,” http://sfbayview.com/2013/motion-denied-governor-medical-neglect-is-still-killing-prisoners/

Ms. Dembosky then stated their suggestions were drawn from Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project’s report, “When did prisons become acceptable mental healthcare facilities?,” which brings me to the focus of this post — our shameful treatment of the incarcerated mentally ill. This picture “tells” part of the story and is found on the opening page of this report.

According to the report, co-published by California State Senate pro Tem, Darrell Steinberg, Stanford Law School Professor, David Mills and Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project Direction, Michael Romano, “In 1971 there were 20,000 people in California prisons; by 2010 the population had increased to 162,000 people, of which 45 percent are estimated to be mentally ill [emphasis added].”

Continuing on page three of this Stanford Law School report, “The mentally ill who fill our prisons range from the violent to the nonviolent, and from those who were born with disabilities to those who have been damaged by circumstances and environment. According to a recent report from the National Sheriff’s Association and Treatment Advocacy Center, ten times as many mentally ill people are in prison and jail in America today than are in mental health treatment facilities.3” [Report’s FN source: National Sheriffs’ Association and Treatment Advocacy Center, “The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails.” (2014).]

Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project Recommendations to Halt our Shameful Treatment of the Incarcerated Mentally Ill

There is so much important information in this report, which builds to its concluding three recommendations for change listed and quoted here:

  1. Reform the Way We Sentence the Mentally Ill:We propose that all new sentences take into account the mental health of each defendant and, where appropriate, provide a non-prison sentence for any defendant charged with a nonviolent crime/non-serious offense.”
  2. Provide Meaningful Treatment in Prison: “We propose that when a sentencing judge finds (a) that a defendant’s serious offense was caused in large part by his mental illness, or (b) that a defendant who committed a nonserious offense needs to be incarcerated due to the danger to himself or others, the judge will order the provision of meaningful mental health services as part of the terms and conditions of incarceration.”
  3. Continue Meaningful Treatment After Prison: “[W]e propose that all prisoners, prior to release, be evaluated for post-release mental health needs and, where appropriate, be referred to mental health centers for the ongoing provision of mental health care.” 

Source: Stanford Law School Three Strike’s Project Report, “When did prisons become acceptable mental health care facilities?”

Take Action

The report’s title says it all.

Please take the time to read through it and regardless of where you live, share it with your elected officials, law enforcement agencies, legal professionals, communities at large and others, with your urging they take action.

Thank you.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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