American Jails Have Become De Facto Psychiatric Facilities, P. 1

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This weekend not only marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but it marks the 40th anniversary of the Attica prison riots. No, the riots were not in North Carolina, but prison officials here and around the country watched and waited for four days. The riots ended with state troopers opening fire, killing both inmates and hostages in a barrage of bullets that lasted for two minutes.

The anniversary will likely slip by most people. For defense attorneys and prosecutors, prison administration and law enforcement — for anyone involved with the criminal justice system, really, the riots are a reminder of what can happen when the system is so badly broken.

Overcrowding and racial tensions were major stressors back in the 1970s, just as they are today. One issue that threatens to overwhelm correctional facilities nationwide now, though, is the growing population of mentally ill offenders.

According to National Public Radio, this country’s jails and prisons currently house 350,000 people with mental illness. Further, NPR reports that the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country are actually county jails.

The problem dates back, in part, to the 1980s. Government funding for state psychiatric hospitals dried up, and state hospitals across the country closed. Too many people with mental illness, especially schizophrenia, had nowhere else to go.

They ended up in jail. Arrested for petty crimes, they would be convicted and incarcerated in facilities that had few resources available to treat them. Those who did get treatment often could not continue medication or therapy after release. The cycle would start again.

It’s not only inefficient, said a researcher, but it’s also expensive. One county spent $13 million over five years on the multiple arrests and jail sentences of just 97 people. All had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

We’ll continue this in our next post.

Source: National Public Radio, “Nation’s Jails Struggle With Mentally Ill Prisoners,” Sept. 05, 2011