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Prisons are the new asylums

Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 18:02

According to a May 2005 PBS Frontline episode entitled "The New Asylums," roughly twenty-five percent of America's prison population is considered mentally ill.


Although many may believe the vast majority of crimes committed by mentally ill offenders are violent, several studies show that assumption to be incorrect. According to a study conducted by researchers from Oxford University's Department of Psychiatry found that only 5.2% of violent crimes are attributable to individuals suffering from mental illness.

Dr. Seena Fazell, who led the study, said, "many see those with serious psychiatric disorders as significantly contributing to the amount of violent crime in society. In many ways, the most interesting aspect of our findings is that 19 out of 20 people committing violent crimes do so without having any severe mental health problems."


Mentally ill offenders also tend to have very high rates of recidivating, or returning to prison once released. This issue is discussed in Frontline's April 2009 episode "The Released." According to the statistics in this episode, roughly two-thirds of mentally ill inmates that are released are re-arrested within a year. Many are arrested many times. Multiple factors contribute to this problem. One issue is the lack of transitional care provided post-release.


Small shelters and halfway houses, such as Bridgeview Manor in Ohio, provide recently freed offenders with a place to stay. However, there is not nearly enough housing to facilitate the number of inmates being released. Another problem is lack of medical care. Inmates are typically released with several weeks of their prescription medications, but it can take much longer than that to schedule an appointment and have the prescription refilled.


Re-entry programs are also available to inmates once they leave prison. They help seriously mentally ill offenders re-adjust to life outside of prison. These programs provide mental health treatment and bi-weekly meetings with a psychiatrist. The programs also help with monitoring and prescribing any needed medications.


Although these programs are extremely helpful, they are sadly rare. There are not nearly enough resources available to meet the need. In the mid-1990's, over 44 state mental hospitals closed their doors. The Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a national non-profit organization "dedicated to eliminating barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illnesses" estimates that nearly half of state psychiatric beds closed between 1990 and 2000.


The report explores the relationship between crime and the mentally challenged: "a second consequence of the radical reduction in public psychiatric hospital beds has been a massive increase in severely mentally ill persons in jails and prisons," says Dr. E. Fuller Torrey of the TAC, "we have been unable to identify a single county in the nation where the county psychiatric inpatient facility is holding as many mentally ill individuals as the county jail. And once a person is in jail, it is almost impossible to find them a bed in a psychiatric hospital."


Mental illness and crime has been a problem for many years and continues to be an issue today. Lack of proper medical care, low funding and improper management of state mental health institutions, and high recidivating rates all contribute to an issue most people do not want to think about. However, problems are being studied and solutions being proposed. Progress is slow, but as Eric Bailey, an activities therapist at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, says, "we have got to remember, these people are locked up, and they're not going to stay locked up all their life. We have to try to correct [their problems]. That's why it's called corrections."

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