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For far too long, our jail and prison system has been utilized too often and largely for those suffering from mental health conditions and, thus, serves as a substitute for mental clinics and hospitals that can better provide a breadth of productive and effective therapies for those in need of such attention. Prisons were never intended to house the mentally ill!

Mental Health

Mental Health Self-Determination: Not Incarceration—Rosemary Jenkins

Contrary to logic, many at the highest levels (such as Orange County, California, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens) who are involved in coordinating the incarceration system, literally purport that inmates want to stay in prison because their lives will be more fruitful while locked up! Such people claim that prison life is a pathway to stabilization and rehabilitation. How ludicrous!

Reality, however, purports just the opposite. While the prison-industrial complex continues to grow geometrically (including for-profit private prisons), those who are mentally ill and find themselves behind prison bars are victimized from mistreatment that can lead to further mental and physical deterioration. A plunge into such an abyss can be attributed, at least in part, to specific kinds of detention, such as solitary confinement in the SHU—the Solitary Housing Unit (perhaps the cruelest of punishments whose penalties are exacted for an indeterminate amount of time—often for years).

Lizzie Buchen (lizzie@curbprisonspending.org), an advocate and coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), has stated: “One of the most alarming features of these jail expansion projects is they are being promoted as ways to improve conditions for incarcerated people.” In reality, the purpose seems to be to find new ways to make money and keep the prison population growing exponentially. There is little logic behind much of the sentencing process, especially for those involved in low-level crimes. Furthermore and most significantly, those who suffer from mental health problems need to be in out-patient treatment centers, not jails!

Studies have shown that incarceration for the mentally ill only exacerbates their health problems. Commonly, jailers and the medical staff are insufficient in numbers and are generally inadequately trained to handle the very distinct, unique, and discrete problems of this class of inmates.

Confronted with threats of violence, rape, and other traumas, even the sanest of prisoners can devolve into anxiety and/or paranoia because of these experiences or from fear of them. More than half of jailed prisoners suffer from some form of psychosis, mania, and/or major depression. A majority of inmates suffer from alcoholism and/or drug abuse and need the proper treatment to help them overcome this scourge. “Suicide is the number one cause of death in local jails and is [among] the top five for prisons”—an unbelievable statistic.

Studies have shown that incarceration for the mentally ill only exacerbates their health problems. Commonly, jailers and the medical staff are insufficient in numbers and are generally inadequately trained to handle the very distinct, unique, and discrete problems of this class of inmates.

There are any number of individuals (like George Soros) and organizations such as CURB and the Family United Network (FUN) who have devoted themselves to reversing the outrageous scenarios that we see being repeated and perpetuated not only in California but throughout the nation. Rosie Flores, from the California Partnership and the Riverside Alternatives to Jail Expansion, has stated, “It is clear the best treatment [for this category of people] and education cannot happen in jail.”

The emphasis has to be on recognition implicit in the problems, preventative measures, and treatment rather than incarceration, the latter of which is financially costly for the taxpayer and has little return on investment for them. Those in jail are suffering from varying degrees of mental illness and are more likely to decline and be ill-fitted to return to society as healthy and productive assets to their respective communities if appropriate remedies are not pursued. Furthermore, the families and friends of those who find themselves behind prison walls also need to be educated so that they too can become advocates “to challenge mass incarceration and extreme punishment”—something the Eighth Amendment fundamentally forbids (you know the one that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”--a rule established from the start by our founding forebears for very legitimate and historical reasons).

CURB has determined that there are at least seven factors which should mandate alternatives to prison for the mentally ill:

  • People with mental illness are disproportionately criminalized (at least 50% of the prison population has been identified as mentally ill whereas the general non-prison population with some degree of mental illness number only about 6%)
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  • Incarceration further damages mental health (such victims frequently face threats of violence, rape, racist acts, and other traumas; separation from loved ones is very debilitating; there is a loss of dignity and purpose and a feelings of hopelessness and futility which can leader people to untoward actions and even suicide
  • Jails and prisons are generally ill-equipped to treat mental illness (as has been stated earlier, imprisonment of this segment of society is not cost-effective (compare clinic costs for a patient of $2200 a year to prison costs of $34,000)
  • Jails are becoming de facto mental health providers—certainly not the intention of the prison system which has been created not only to exact punishment but to rehabilitate inmates for eventual return to society once the sentence has been served; people with mental conditions are far less likely to improve while incarcerated
  • We need to increase community programs, not incarceration (addressing methods to prevent social ills that lead to criminal activity and emphasize support and recovery pathways
  • There are alternatives to incarceration (San Francisco Behavioral Health Court is determined “to divert individuals with Mental illness from incarceration by connecting them to outside treatment and wraparound services”; the Integrated Recovery Network in Los Angeles works with the homeless population—which is largely made up of the mental ill—with the goal of helping with safe and clean housing, appropriate and adequate treatment, and dependable income)
  • People with mental illness deserve better: “Mental illness is not a choice. Its symptoms can lead people to engage in behaviors they otherwise would not do. . . . [Furthermore,] social workers should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice” of their clients.

Our jails and prisons are currently being utilized more to house the mentally ill than to house those who have been convicted of crimes for which mental illness was not a recognized but was a contributing factor. The mentally ill must be given the treatment that they need in order to function well in society, understanding that the crimes they may have committed are largely due to a lack of medical guidance which might have contained their anti-social symptoms (and this kind of attention needs to be done before they engage in any criminal activity). The jail system was never meant as a profit-making business whose only goal is to make money at the expense of the ultimate goal of helping prisoners to be rehabilitated and to be prepared for successful re-entry into society.

Of course, we cannot ignore that segment of the mentally ill population which may never be ready to succeed on their own or who may have committed such heinous crimes that their future actions might forever be a concern for the safety and security of the greater community.

In the end, sentencing must be proportionate to the crimes committed. Low-level and victimless crimes (in my view) should be addressed in separate courts with logical, compassionate, and ameliorative systems in place whose outcomes may not always include sentencing behind bars at all (think of the positive effects that instituting California Proposition 47--2014 has produced).

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Just some thoughts to be considered during this electoral year when we must choose leaders who will be charged with pursuing justice and mercy in their legislative and judicial capacities.

Rosemary Jenkins