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Many U.S. Prisoners Mentally Ill, Few Receive Treatment

Nearly half of the nation?s 2.3 million prisoners suffer from some sort of mental disorder, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released in September 2006. Yet fewer than a third of those receive any treatment.

The numbers are disturbing. Overall, the report reveals that 64% of the nation?s 747,000 jail prisoners, 56% of its 1.5 million state prisoners, and 45% of its 156,000 federal prisoners had been treated for or exhibited signs of a mental disorder in the previous year. Even so, just 1 in 3 state and federal prisoners--and only 1 in 6 jail prisoners--received mental health care while imprisoned.

This lack of treatment has predictably adverse consequences. The report found, for instance, that mentally ill prisoners were 2 to 3 times more likely to be injured in a fight during their imprisonment. They were also disciplined for rule violations at a significantly higher rate than other prisoners.

The findings are ?both a scandal and national tragedy,? said Michael J. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. ?The study reveals that the problem is two to three times greater than anyone imagined.? Fitzpatrick further said the findings indicate ?that the mental health system is failing--long before people enter the criminal justice system and after they leave it.?
Unfortunately, in modern America retribution often trumps treatment and rehabilitation.

Compared to other prisoners, those with mental disorders were 2 to 3 times more likely to have been homeless in the year before their arrest (6.6% of federal prisoners and 17.2% of local jail prisoners); about 3 times as likely to have been the victims of past physical or sexual abuse; and roughly 50% more likely to have abused drugs and alcohol.
Mentally ill prisoners were also more likely to be female, white, and young. They were only slightly more likely to have committed a violent crime.

While prisons have undoubtedly become the de facto guardians of the nation?s mentally ill over the past three decades, it?s equally plausible that prisons cause such disorders. According to the report, only about 40% of jail prisoners and 30% of state and federal prisoners had a history of mental illness prior to their imprisonment. In addition, most--roughly 70%--were gainfully employed in the month prior to their arrest. The cause of mental disorders for many, it seems, is in adjusting to the harsh, dehumanizing, totalitarian, and often brutal realities of American prison life.

The report?s findings were based on surveys conducted every 5 to 6 years. Interviews with state and federal prisoners were conducted in 2004, and jail prisoners were interviewed in 2002. Symptoms of mental illness were based on criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV) and must have occurred within the previous 12 months. Get a copy of the report, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, online at

Additional source: Associated Press

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