This month is Mental Health Month, and there is one place where mental disorders are shamefully going untreated: in our prisons.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 45 percent of federal prisoners, 56 percent of state prisoners and 64 percent of local jail inmates have symptoms of serious mental illnesses.
In the United States today, there are more people suffering from serious mental illness in our jails and prisons than there are in our psychiatric hospitals, according to Dr. Terry Kupers, one of the world's leading experts on the psychological effects of solitary confinement.
Prison itself contributes to mental illnesses. It's difficult for any human being to be housed in a 6-by-8 cell with another inmate. Add in segregation or solitary confinement -- where the lights are on day and night and you're totally isolated -- and mental balance is virtually impossible for anyone to handle, much less someone hearing voices or having persecution thoughts.
"Solitary confinement is a test that we try to pass," says DarRen Morris, a state prisoner in Wisconsin who is serving a year in solitary. "It has taken the soul of strong men. That steel door becomes the devil, and these walls the demons. When I leave this depressing place, I know I will take a piece of it with me, and leave a part of my soul and humanity here."
Confinement cells have become America's new asylums, where prisoners may remain for months, even years.
Several decades ago, public policy decisions were made to deinstitutionalize mental health services, so now we incarcerate people who could have benefited from treatment. The prisons lack resources, training and medicine for proper treatment. The 2006 Justice Department report stated that three of four federal prisoners and five out of six jail inmates who had mental health problems received no treatment whatsoever while incarcerated.
Some states have introduced bills to limit or ban the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates. That would be a start.
But we, as a society, need to push harder. We have an obligation to provide decent mental health care to prisoners and not to create or aggravate their mental health challenges. This is about safety -- ours and theirs.
Judy Adrian is an instructor at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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