Mental Illness Factories

Written by Joe Suhre on February 3, 2014 in Expert Articles

Mental Illness Factories

Everyday I represent some of the best people you will never know. The reason for this is that people have difficulty seeing them as good, let alone best. Regardless, most of my clients are like you and me plus a mistake or two. A few however, struggle. They are mentally ill. My biggest fear when I represent a mentally ill client is that if they end up in prison, their illness will get worse. In fact my fear when any client is forced to do time, is that the mental illness factories we call prisons will destroy them.

Most people still seem to be in the dark on how to deal with mental illness. Yet understanding mental illness should probably be a priority, since according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in five Americans have suffered from some form of mental illness in the past year.

Ignorance begets prejudice

Even though great strides have been made in diagnosing and treating mental illness, it is still a feared and misunderstood disease. Most people for instance, presume that the mentally ill have a propensity toward aggressive actions and violent thoughts.

According to a recent Harvard Health Publication, 60% of adults nationwide believe that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward another person. This may not concern you, but as you pop your Prozac in the morning, consider that 32% thought that people with major depression were also likely to act violently as well.

Yet, according to multiple studies, the mentally ill aren’t any more prone to violence than any other population group. Studies show that the mentally ill only account for a very small percentage of violence in the U.S. and are actually 2½ times more likely to be the victim of violent crime.

Where did all of these mentally ill prisoners come from?

Despite the number of crimes committed by the mentally ill, in 2006 the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated the number of mentally ill inmates at 1.25 million. As the number of inmates with mental illness approaches 60% of the prison population, one might begin to wonder if our prisons are becoming mental illness factories, where the healthy get sick, and the mentally ill get sicker.

Many prisons deal with the mentally ill by placing them in solitary confinement for years and even decades at a time; hardly good therapy for mental health. Of course, the term solitary confinement isn’t used any more to describe isolating a person for 22-24 hours a day from human contact. Euphemisms such as “segregation” and “security housing units” make it sound much more humane.

A sad history

In previous centuries, society institutionalized the insane, the mentally ill, or any non-violent undesirables in asylums, hiding them away so the public would feel safe. The conditions however, were hardly desirable for sound mental health. In fact, there exists ample documentation of sane people assigned to mental asylums, either for political purposes or by mistake, that eventually ended up with severe mental illness due to the environments of such institutions.

Eventually people began to realize the inhumanity. Over several decades, people worked to reform institutions that were nothing more than prisons for the mentally ill. Hospitals, in time replaced asylums, but as the cost to treat patients increased, more and more mental hospitals have been forced to close, sending the mentally ill onto the streets.

The Wall Street Journal raised concerns recently that our modern prisons have become replacements for the old asylums. However, since we can now assign a crime to each inmate, we don’t have to concern ourselves with the inhumanity any more; after all, criminals deserve it.

What can we do?

Over the past several decades many politicians have favored more prisons, more solitary confinement, and lengthier sentences. They complained about the revolving prison door, even though evidence shows that the mental health of prisoners is a major factor in recidivism. However, rather than deal with inmates’ mental illness, they believed that creating an even larger prison system was the ultimate solution for dealing with society’s undesirables.

As this viewpoint gained traction and support, it was frightening how eager we seemed to be to repeat the harsh attitudes and inhumane conditions of the past; and looking at the system that grew from this attitude; we certainly have come close.

Fortunately many politicians who encouraged the former “tough on crime” policy have recommended a reevaluation of our justice system, favoring treatment over incarceration and a return to the concept of correction over a system that debilitates the prisoner. But for every voice favoring rehabilitation, there are many others stating they are shocked and appalled over sentences that don’t span decades.


The US prison system will undergo radical transformations over the next few decades. Some say finances will dictate policy, while others say our policy will grow out of necessity. Either way, we should probably consider more.

Maybe the real question should be, how will our humanity effect policy? With the prevalence of mental illness in prisons, it seems appropriate that a policy of understanding and empathy for the mentally ill prisoner should be a major part of the discussion if real progress is to occur.

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