On any given night, the Los Angeles County jail serves as the largest mental institution in the country with 1,400 mentally ill inmates. In the DJJ, 2/3 of the youth have some type of mental disorder. But it’s hard to tell whether we’re just locking up more people with mental health issues or if our corrections practices are actually contributing to the mental illnesses of those we incarcerate. I’ve concluded it’s a combination of both.
Jails were not designed to house and care for individuals with mental health issues. However, because our communities are failing to provide adequate mental health services, many of them wind up in our broken criminal and juvenile corrections system. Instead of serving as a venue to rehabilitate, jails have become a receptacle for individuals whose mental health issues are not addressed elsewhere.
The practice of incarcerating mentally ill people obliterates their rights, prolongs their struggles with mental health issues, and jeopardizes public safety. Individuals who are properly diagnosed and receive appropriate treatment can function healthily in the community. Those who enter jails with mental health issues reenter their communities in the same condition they arrived in, if not worse off because of a lack of treatment and services.
This year Troy Anderson, a mentally ill inmate at the Colorado State Penitentiary, got his day in court and the chance to share his story of how his life-long struggle with bipolar disorder among other mental health problems, contributed to his incarceration and led prison officials to place him in solitary confinement for over a decade.
Current jail and prison practices are also causing inmates to become mentally ill. By utilizing harmful practices like solitary confinement, CDCR is causing individuals to suffer from various psychoses and depression contributing to higher rates of self-mutilation and suicide. Just last month the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of some California prisoners against the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison for its excessive use of solitary confinement. At Pelican Bay there is a group of 500 inmates who have been in isolation for at least ten years; some for as many as 28 years. This lawsuit cites the negative mental effects of solitary as one of its main arguments for eliminating its practice.
What do you think about the wide use of jails and prisons as mental institutions? Shouldn’t we build communities that are better equipped to care for those who suffer from mental health issues instead of just locking them up? What about CDCR’s use of solitary confinement which actually causes and exacerbates mental illnesses? Shouldn’t we prepare those in our system of corrections for their reentry into the community instead of driving them toward insanity?
Morgan is Books Not Bars' policy intern. She is currently a law student at UC Hastings School of Law.
Mental Health Issues in California’s Juvenile Justice System,” Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, May 2010.
Montagne, Renne, “Inside The Nation's Largest Mental Institution,” National Public Radio, August 14, 2008.
Moore, Solomon, “Mentally Ill Offenders Strain Juvenile System,” The New York Times, August 9, 2009.
Rodriguez, Sal, Solitary Watch, http://solitarywatch.com/faq/
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