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Inmate Healthcare | Mental Illness in Prison

Conservative Solutions
News Stories


“Our prisons and jails have become the default mental health system. This is wrong. In most of these situations the mentally ill are not criminals. They are sick, not bad.” - Pat Nolan

“Using our criminal justice system as a mental health system doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for law enforcement officers, who put their lives at risk every time they are called upon to intervene in a mental health crisis. It doesn’t make sense for courts, which are inundated with cases involving people with mental illness. It doesn’t make sense for people who have mental health conditions, who often would benefit more from treatment and intensive supervision than from traditional incarceration. And it certainly doesn’t make sense for taxpayers, who foot the bill for high incarceration costs and overcrowded corrections facilities.” - Pat Nolan, The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act

The availability of sufficient health care in prisons is limited. Often times, prisoners have to pay fees to see medical professionals, and most prisoners can’t afford these fees with their meager hourly wages. This discourages prisoners from seeking the proper health care they need.

Prisoners with chronic or mental illnesses encounter this problem the most because their treatments are the costliest. When up to 30% of individuals behind bars have a diagnosed mental illness, it becomes imperative to terminate obstacles like charging for necessary medical treatment.

Locking up non-violent, mentally-ill offenders makes no sense. Up to 30% of the inmates behind bars have a diagnosed mental illness. Of the 30% who have diagnosed mental illnesses, 60% have not been convicted of a crime, but cannot afford to make bail. And of the 40% who have been convicted of a crime, 75% of those convictions are for non-violent offenses. Because mental illness often creates obstacles to following rules, mentally-ill prisoners tend to stay in jail longer, and upon release, are at a higher risk of recidivism than individuals without mental illness. These individuals are not bad people; they are merely sick and need treatment.

Having large numbers of mentally ill prisoners makes managing incarceration facilities more difficult. Moreover, its costlier to incarcerate these individuals than to provide them with the help they need in mental health treatment centers. These inmates are often abused and sometimes inflict abuse in return. By the very nature of their disease, mentally ill inmates cannot follow orders, which makes managing a jail very difficult. The mentally ill would receive better treatment at less cost in civil facilities.

The human toll of incarcerating the mentally ill—and its cost to taxpayers—is staggering. Jails spend two to three times more on adults with mental illness than on those without. Yet, large numbers of people with mental illness continue to cycle through the criminal justice system, often resulting in tragic outcomes for these individuals and their families while putting corrections officers at unnecessary risk. By moving the nonviolent, mentally ill individuals out of jails and prisons, the corrections operations could save millions, jails would be easier to manage, and most importantly, mentally-ill inmates would be treated more humanely.

Conservative Solutions

  • Encourage coordination between law enforcement and mental health providers so that non-dangerous mentally ill persons will receive treatment without being booked into jail.
  • Provide individualized treatment and services that address the specific mental health and substance abuse needs of inmates.
  • Continue support for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams.
  • Authorize veterans’ treatment courts, which are specially structured to help arrested veterans who suffer from PTSD, substance addiction, and other mental health conditions.
  • Help state and local agencies identify people with mental illness at each phase of the criminal justice system in order to connect them with appropriate mental health services.
  • Increase training for law enforcement officers in how to respond appropriately to incidents involving a person with a mental health condition.
  • Develop comprehensive, individual post-release transition plans for inmates that coordinate health, housing, medical, employment, mental health services and substance abuse treatment when they are released from incarceration.


Mental Illnesses have become all too prevalent in America’s jails and prisons. PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly highlights the extent of this problem and what is being done around the country to reverse this worrisome trend.

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