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How the Prison System Fails to Protect the Mentally Ill

by Aliah Ranne Paras

The Prison System and the Deterioration of the Mental Health of Inmates

According to the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health, located in Toronto, Ontario, the chances of someone with a mental illness entering a prison facility is 4-7 times more likely than those that don’t. The term used to refer to this phenomenon is that of “the criminalization of the mentally ill”. This is where the system falls short. With the huge intake of inmates, it leaves the prison system with little time and space to accommodate for those with specific needs and fails to do their job of rehabilitating those to reintegrate into society.

Why do the mentally ill take up so much of the prison population?

If we look at crime through a general strain lens, we can see that there are certain stressors that can influence one to commit crime. There are a number of factors as to why our society criminalizes those with mental illnesses.

Mental illnesses can arise from behaviors or outside influences on one’s development such as substance abuse, physical abuse, and poverty. When someone experiences these traumas, it can spiral into the development of possible mental illnesses. These are reasons that are outside of an individual’s control, but something that they were unfortunately placed in. A significant portion of those living unemployed have mental illnesses, and this financial strain can lead them to do actions that are seen as criminal. When encountering authority, this may be seen as criminal behavior rather than coping behavior.

How does being in such an environment affect an inmate’s mental health?

The prison environment, as described by Jerry Metcalf, from the Marshall Project describes it as living in a constant state of stress, filthy, and feelings of sadness.

The staff to inmate ratio is incredibly disproportionate and this can lead to lack of care for inmates. Staff are unable to fully care for inmates as there are so many of them and so few of fellow staff members. When we place people that are known to be dangerous with people that need actual care, can endanger those that are not actually supposed to be there. Metcalf explains his feelings of vulnerability when eating in the cafeteria, fearing for his life and being hyper vigilant of his fellow inmates. Being in a state like this for a long time can affect one’s mental health substantially. The loss or losing of relationships on the outside is common as communication is often bleak. Metcalf describes his phone calls as hearing his mother cry once a week. The loss of relationships is something so common among inmates and this loss can create so much stress on an individual that can cause them to lash out and further develop a mental illness.

Do inmates have proper access to such resources?

Short answer is no. Though every system differs, there is no question that our prison system as a whole cannot fully handle being both a mental health facility and a penal system at once. We need to unlearn our stigmas surrounding the mentally ill and recognize that this ignorance is landing people in jail. Our prisons have become a bin to throw the mentally ill in when we don’t care enough to find help for them. Undiagnosed illnesses often remain that way because we dont bother to look into treatment or social services that can deter them away from crime.

What can we do?

In a short term view, we can focus on redirection and proper prison division. If we find ways to lead people on different paths from the very beginning through a number of social services then we can hopefully decrease the number of mentally ill from entering the system. Unfortunately, this is something that will take a fair amount of time and some may fall through the cracks. From there we can look at proper division within a prison and have screenings set in place to differentiate inmates based on the certain care that they need.

In a wider scope, we can look at where our public funds are going. We can reallocate our money into creating better social services for the mentally ill before they even set foot into the prison system.


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