The Criminalization of The Mentally Ill

 criminalization of the mentally ill

Those with mental illness are hard-pressed to find rest in America which is not a jail cell. Mental health facilities in America are sorely lacking, much less optimized for those struggling with mental illnesses. The budget for hospitals and community houses is exceptionally low, far below the budget spent on mass incarceration that America has been obsessed with for the better part of six decades. Although debatably not intentional, the shift from caring for the mentally ill in hospitals to prisons has been growing. This is a problem. Dealing with those who are mentally ill in an environment not suited to them and proven to only exacerbate those mental conditions leaves those individuals in a cycle of recidivism and pain. This is not just a problem for the mentally ill. This is a human problem. The criminalization of the mentally ill is inhumane and needs to change.

It is not surprising that America has a problem with mass incarceration. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S. imprisons people at the rate of “565 per 100,000 residents” (Sawyer). This remains a trend that is very much alive today. “In 2021, about 421,000 people entered prison gates, but people went to jail almost 7 million times” (Sawyer). This trend of mass incarceration first started in 1965 with the ‘hard-on-crime’ stance favored by Lyndon Johnson (Udi). Following his presidency, Nixon continued this trend into the eighties. This and the war on drugs introduced a new political trajectory concerning crime that favored longer and harsher sentences for criminals. This attitude has continued to ebb and flow in public opinion, gaining leverage one day and losing the next. No one can deny that America remains a country with one of the highest incarceration rates (Udi).

Mass incarceration of those who struggle with mental health is another disturbing trend. Unfortunately, the rates have only been increasing (Bronson). Thisis explained by the introduction of the war on drugs. The war on drugs not only introduced laws such as mandatory minimum sentencing, which took away some of the judge’s power to decide appropriate punishment, but the three-strike laws increased the rate of drug users incarcerated. How manyof those who struggle with mental illness areimprisoned? “In the United States, there are three times more mentally ill people in prisons than in mental health hospitals, and prisoners have rates of mental illness that are two to four times greater than the rates of members of the general public” (Fellner). Since the prison houses a vast amount of America’smentally ill, how does this result affect those who are incarcerated?

The practice of sociology will aid us in this endeavor. Social structures often overlap and intertwine with each other. When those seeking help for mental illness do not find adequate community resources, often law enforcement is left to deal with the fallout. Unfortunately, this cycle of the mentally ill crossing into the label of ‘criminal’ only exacerbates the cycle. Once labeled as a criminal, it becomes easier to overlook diagnoses and simply submit them to the prison system instead of the woefully underprepared psychiatric system that was designed for them. “Incarcerated persons with mental health disorders are more likely than the general population to be re-incarcerated” (Bronson). This cycle can continue as prison is also woefully unprepared to manage and treat those with mental illnesses properly. “The penal network is thus not only serving as a warehouse for the mentally ill, but, by relying on extremely restrictive housing for mentally ill prisoners, it is acting as an incubator for worse illness and psychiatric breakdowns” (Fellner). Lack of community resources for those with mental illness can lead to prison time,where, now labeled as ‘criminals,’ they have even less access to mental health resources. This cycle is unforgiving.

This is all without even mentioning the impact that mandated segregation and solitary confinement can have on those who suffer from mental illness. “The adverse effects of solitary confinement are especially significant for persons with serious mental illness” (Metzner). Additionally, “Prison conditions such as crowded living quarters, lack of privacy, increased risk of victimization, and exposure to punitive segregation are strongly correlated with emerging and worsening psychiatric symptoms” (Bronson). If the prison system is “America’s de-facto mental health facilities,” as NAMI claims, this is a big problem. “According to one federal judge, putting mentally ill prisoners in isolated confinement ‘is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air…’” (Metzner). Traditional systems of punishment within the prison structure only serve to exacerbate the symptoms of the mentally ill further.

Prisons were not meant to be the main housing unit for the mentally ill. Unfortunately, this has increasingly become the case. “Jails and Prisons have become America’s de-facto mental health facilities. However, they are not built, financed, or structured to provide adequate mental health services” (Criminalization of People with Mental Illness). “Mental illness impairs prisoners’ ability to cope with the extraordinary stresses of prison and to follow the rules of a regimented life predicated on obedience and punishment for infractions” (Fellner). When the hard-on-crime rhetoric ramps up again this election season, we need to remember who benefits from this system.It is certainly not the mentally ill. This hard-on-crime stance and the War on Drugs are what have resulted in the criminalization of mental illness in the first place. This problem affects the whole fabric of society. The criminalization of the mentally ill is not humane and must be changed.

Bronson, J. (2017, June). Indicators of mental health problems reported by prisoners and jail … Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Criminalization of people with mental illness. NAMI. (n.d.).,jails%20and%20prisons%20becoming%20de-facto%20mental%20health%20facilities.

Fellner, J. (2003, October 21). Ill-equipped. Human Rights Watch.

Lamb, H. R. (2005, November 4). The shift of psychiatric inpatient care from hospitals to jails and Prisons. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Metzner, J. L. (2010, November 1). Solitary confinement and mental illness in U.S. prisons: A Challenge … Journal of The American Academy of Psychiatry and The Law.

Ofer, Udi. (2022, November 3). Politicians’ Tough-on-Crime Messaging Could Have Devastating Consequences. TIME. Why the U.S. Is Heading Toward New Era of Mass Incarceration | TIME.

Sawyer, Wnedy. (2023, March 14). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023. Prison Policy Initiative. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023 | Prison Policy Initiative.

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I'm a student and writer who has taken multiple college classes in the fields of sociology and criminal justice. My favorite part of my college classes was creating essays that drew from multiple academic sources. I love spreading knowledge through sociological inquiry and writing.