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Growing number of US inmates have mental illness

19 July 2015 17:07


US prisons are ill-equipped to effectively treat the growing number of inmates who suffer from mental illness, the majority of whom are not convicted of any crimes, experts say.

Hundreds of thousands of inmates across the US are mentally ill and receive substandard psychological treatment while experiencing violent abuse by prison staff , according to a report by The Associated Press, citing several recent studies.

“In most hospitals, you don’t have staff whipping out Tasers and pepper spray and using it on their patients,” said Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, who has studied mental health treatment in prisons and recently wrote a report detailing instances of mentally ill prisoners being beaten or so violently restrained that they die.

“This kind of treatment isn’t just restricted to someone who’s committed a horrific crime,” said Fellner, as quoted by AP.

Americans with mental illness sometimes end up behind bars because police officers do not know what else to do with them, said Scott Glaser, executive director of the Colorado chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Once in prison, they find it hard to get out and cannot usually get effective treatment, Glaser said. “It increases recidivism. If someone is dealing with a mental illness that affects their decision-making, it’s very easy for them to end up in the system again.”

“Prison is a pretty horrific place to be, especially if you have a mental illness,” said Laura Usher of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ national office.

A federal study in 2006 estimated that 56 percent of all prisoners in state custody suffered from mental illness and 15 percent suffered from some sort of psychotic disorder.

Mentally ill people do not function properly in the loud and crowded environment of prisons, the study concluded. They are more likely to have problems following rules, which increases the chance that they will be punished and end up in solitary confinement.

Mental health advocates say the isolation of a solitary cell can vastly aggravate the inmates’ mental illness and their treatment is almost uniformly substandard for a variety of reasons.

The incarceration of mentally ill inmates in jails and prisons has been a persistent national problem since the widespread closure of mental hospitals in the 1970s.

The promised mental health clinics to care for the newly-released mentally disabled never materialized, and now they often end up in jails, even though the US Constitution entitles them to basic medical treatment, said Dr. Renee Binder, president of the American Psychiatric Association.

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