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Justice Department Says 45% of Prisoners Have Mental Health Issues

A 2006 Justice Department concluded that 45% of prisoners in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) have mental health problems, which was characterized as a recent manifestation of mental illness or symptoms of a disorder. According to the BOP, 10% of its prisoner population is receiving medication designed to treat depression, bipolar disorder, and acute schizophrenia.

Most prisoner rights advocates have long maintained that, especially on the state level, prisons have begun the “dumping ground” for many mentally ill individuals who should have been referred to mental health facilities rather than jail.  Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart has confirmed that Cook County Jail is the “largest mental health institution in the state,” since many mental hospitals have closed.

In an era when the BOP is soaking up more and more of the stagnant Justice Department budget, taking funds from the FBI, ATF, and the U.S. Attorney’s offices, the federal justice system can little afford the added expense and potential for volatility among a population 43% over capacity with almost half suffering from mental health deficiencies. Unfortunately, too often the BOP chooses to medicate and maintain rather than provide mental health treatment.  

The BOP spent $36.5 million on psychotropic drugs over the past four years for the 20,000 prisoners who need them.

Unfortunately, the general level of medical care in the BOP is now acknowledged by even many federal district court judges as uneven and in many instances, dangerous, resulting in substantial monetary judgments.  Without sufficient medical facilities or enough physicians and other medical personnel to treat their prisoner population, physically and mentally ill prisoners are scattered throughout the system, as the prison system fights a daily battle to avoid disaster.

This reality means that both prisoners and prison employees are in potential danger from a flareup of mental health issues, coupled with the usual pressure on facilities and staff by overcrowded facilities.  Eric Young, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, summed up the situation, saying, “We have a problem...we don’t know the health histories of the people who are walking among us…”  Until the BOP resolves its overcrowding issues and begins to treat those prisoners needing mental health intervention, the problems will only persist.

Source: “Thousands of prisoners treated for mental illness,” by Kevin Johnson, USA Today,, July 24, 2014.

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