Trapped: Mentally Ill Persons in Our Nation’s Prisons and Jails

Photography by: Jenn Ackerman

Trapped: Mentally Ill Persons in Our Nation’s Prisons and Jails

The continuous withdrawal of mental health funding has turned jails and prisons across the U.S. into the default mental health facilities. A report in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that the number of Americans with mental illnesses who are incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails is disproportionately high. Almost 555,000 people with mental illness are incarcerated, while fewer than 55,000 persons are being treated in designated mental health hospitals.

The problem with the mental health system in our country did not spring up overnight. “There was a shift in the way our society sees mental illness,” says psychologist Dr. Stephanie Roby. “We saw a fallout from the 1960s when we were institutionalizing everyone. Society reacted by saying the community needs to be more responsible for these individuals.”

The goal was to reduce the number of mental health patients housed in large government-operated, public psychiatric hospitals by shifting their care to local communities where programs would be created to handle their special needs. “It was a great idea in theory,” says Dr. Roby. “Unfortunately, mentally ill people do a lot of inappropriate things, they are misunderstood and they commit crimes….” As a result, they then have ended up as inmates in our country’s prisons and jails, rather than receiving treatment in mental health facilities.

Even worse, as the prisons and jails in our country have become the dumping ground for mentally ill people, we will end up simply replicating what happened in the 1960s when they just warehoused mentally ill persons in large public psychiatric hospitals and then sent them back onto the streets to fend for themselves.

The documentary video that is presented below was produced at The Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Kentucky. “We are the surrogate mental hospitals now,” said Warden Larry Chandler. With the rapidly rising number of mentally ill prisoners, the reformatory was forced to rebuild a system that was designed for correctional security. It was never intended to be a mental health facility. However, by necessity mental health treatment has quickly become one of its primary goals. Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Kentucky. The continuous withdrawal of mental health funding has turned jails and prisons all across the U.S. into the default mental health facilities.

Mentally Ill Prisoners at The Kentucky State Reformatory

Video by: Jenn Ackerman

You can read more about Jenn Ackerman’s project studying the treatment of mentally ill persons in the nation’s prisons and jails here.

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One Response to “Trapped: Mentally Ill Persons in Our Nation’s Prisons and Jails”

  1. James S. Klich II Says:

    I have a disabled adult who lives in the home with mental illness. If we did not take care of him, he would of landed up in prison. People with mental illness sometimes do crazy things. They may steal, use drugs, drink, become violent and maybe kill during a period of rage. Many times these people are ok 99% of the time. If they are on the proper medication it helps with many of the problems but not all of them. Since I live with a person with mental illness, I understand how many of them land up in prison. People with mental illness need treatment! It is a shame so many land up in prison due to a mistake that they made. Many do not understand what the mistake is that they made.


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