Moving Inmates From Overpopulated Prisons to Mental Facilities

The United States has one of the largest jail and prison populations in the world. Recent statistics estimate that more than 2.2 million people now sit behind bars in the U.S.

Even more, a large portion of those inmates suffers from mental illnesses that contributed directly to their incarcerations. In fact, those same statistics reveal that 64 percent of U.S. jail inmates, 54 percent of state prison inmates, and 45 percent of federal prison inmates have been diagnosed with active cases of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Many of them likewise suffer from co-occurring drug dependency.

Given this high prevalence of mental illnesses among incarcerated individuals, advocates of prison reform argue that it makes more sense to remove these people from behind bars and place them in treatment programs that can address their underlying diagnoses and reform their behaviors. They also recommend a number of innovative measures to prevent people who are mentally ill from being incarcerated in the first place.

Early Intervention

One of the most innovative ways that prison reform advocates suggest to curb the mentally ill from ending up behind bars involves offering early intervention at the middle school and high school levels. Numerous reports suggest that upwards of 60 percent of suspended and expelled students do not go on to graduate from high school. Many of these students fail to succeed in school directly because of untreated mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety.

However, if given access to mental health treatment programs in school, these students may have a better chance of graduating successfully. Their successful graduation combined with their early mental health treatment in school can contribute to their productivity after high school, including going on to college or getting jobs with sufficient incomes.

Pre-booking Diversion Programs

Many states offer diversion programs for low-level offenders. However, these programs come with the risk of incarceration. They also are not typically offered until after a person has been arrested for and booked on a criminal charge.

Advocates for prison reform suggest making diversion programs, which typically entail the completion of mental health and rehabilitation programs, available to people before they are booked into jail. By making these programs available prior to offenders being processed, it lowers the risk of mentally ill individuals ending up in jail and staying in the system.

Community-based Mental Health Programs

By that same token, the prevalence of community-based mental health programs can contribute directly to a lower prison population. If states were to invest in and offer such treatment options, they could connect the mentally ill and most at-risk of incarceration with programs that could treat them successfully and keep them out from behind bars. These programs could also greatly reduce the prison population and lower the burden of the state in housing and caring for people who would otherwise benefit from community-based mental health treatment programs.

Continuity of Care

Finally, prison reform advocates say that continuity of care is vital for reducing prison and jail recidivism rates. People with substance abuse and mental health issues often lose access to health insurance and employer-subsidized treatment options when they are arrested and sent to jail. Likewise, people who are released from jail often lose access to county and state treatment programs, which can put them at significant jeopardy of re-arrest, particularly if they relied on prescription medications that they received from them.

By offering a continuity of care both behind bars and in the community, states could contribute to a lower prison population. They also reduce the number of people being re-arrested and sent back to prison or jail.

These options are among the numerous that prison reform advocates suggest keeping people with mental health conditions out from behind bars. They connect the at-risk with services that are designed to treat them successfully and lower the number of mentally ill inmates from the general prison population.