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Prison Inmates and Mental Illness

Updated on June 29, 2011

Prison Madness is a book that describes the intolerable life circumstances of prison inmates who suffer from mental illness.

In most state prisons in the United States, inmates live in overcrowded, often unsanitary conditions with no privacy. These conditions exacerbate symptoms of mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. In Prison Madness, Terry Kupers points out that "crowding constitutes an intolerable trauma in itself. " He cites research studies that have linked crowding with increased violence in communities. In reception centers where prisoners are sent to await classification, mentally ill inmates are housed in close proximity to violent and predatory convicts. The chaotic, crowded environment of reception centers can result in the victimization of vulnerable inmates by violent convicts during the waiting period. While the process of assessment and classification of prisoners drags on due to inadequate staffing and overcrowding in reception centers, inmates with mental illness find that their safety is repeatedly compromised.

Supermax: How Solitary Confinement Harms Prison Inmates - What life is like for prison inmates in solitary confinement or supermax units.

Only a small number of severely disturbed inmates are sent to an inpatient hospital unit for treatment, and after their release, they receive drastically inadequate follow-up care. Like sane inmates who have trouble managing their anger, mentally ill inmates have precarious control over their behavior and are often punished with solitary confinement for getting into fights or creating disturbances.

Prison inmates are sent to solitary confinement units or "supermax" facilities for disciplinary purposes when their behavior in the general prison population has been assessed as dangerous, violent or disruptive.

While some inmates do act in ways that make them a serious threat to the safety of the general population, others are sent to solitary confinement for minor offenses such as taking too long in the shower.

Most states (about two-thirds) have segregation units or "supermax" facilities where prison inmates are confined in cells for 23 out of 24 hours each day. They are allowed one hour out of their cells for exercise in a small contained area.

Is Solitary Confinement in United States Prisons a Form of Torture? - Are supermax units a necessary form of discipline, or a crime against humanity?

Watch this video of inmates housed in solitary confinement in United States prisons and decide for yourself. Can you imagine living like this? Solitary confinement is isolation without privacy. I believe it is a death sentence for the precarious sanity of inmates with mental illness.

Solitary Confinement of Prison Inmates: What Do You Think? - Are supermax prisons and solitary confinement units necessary?

Share your own views about solitary confinement and supermax housing for prison inmates. Do you think this form of incarceration is a form of torture, as the video suggests? Is there a more humane alternative to solitary confinement, or is it the only possible way to keep other inmates, prison staff and the general public safe from dangerous inmates?

Is solitary confinement and supermax housing of prison inmates a form of torture?

See results
Solitary Confinement and Victimization of Prison Inmates
Solitary Confinement and Victimization of Prison Inmates

Victimization of Prison Inmates with Mental Illness

Solitary confinement creates a dangerous cycle in some prison inmates.

Some inmates use aggressive or disruptive behavior to cope with the traumatic stress of being in prison. These inmates are repeatedly sent to segregation units as punishment.

Each time, they emerge with increasingly more severe aggressive and violent behaviors, including criminal victimization of vulnerable inmates.

They come out looking for a target for their intense rage, and often that target is a mentally ill inmate who is too disoriented, depressed, or distracted by hallucinations to be able to defend himself.

Mentally ill inmates start out with limited resources to defend themselves against physical and sexual violence. If the targeted inmate is taking antipsychotic medication, his capacity to keep himself safe may be compromised even further by delayed reactions to stimuli. This is a common side effect of antipsychotic drugs.

Inmates with bipolar mania or paranoid schizophrenia are the most likely to be sent to solitary confinement as punishment for defiant or bizarre behavior.

Others, particularly inmates with post-traumatic stress disorder, choose to stay in their cells all day in order to avoid being attacked out on the exercise yard.

And for inmates with major depressive disorder or catatonic schizophrenia, isolation and withdrawal is a characteristic symptom of their illness.

Racism and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons
Racism and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons

Racism in Prison

Racial prejudice is a mental and spiritual toxin for prison inmates of color.

Racism is another major dynamic underlying the violence, victimization, and madness in prisons. Kupers makes a direct connection between racism and mental health problems: "Blatant and unopposed racism has devastating effects on the mental health of prisoners," he says. "Quite a few prisoners of color are driven mad by the racism and their lack of recourse."

The racial discrimination that permeates the criminal justice system also infects correctional facilities, and Kupers points out that opportunities for inmates of color to correct racist injustices are extremely limited in the prison environment.

Inmates of color are frequently misidentified by prison staff as gang members and forced to "snitch" on other gang-involved inmates. In order to avoid the inevitably severe and violent consequences of naming real gang members, the informant will give the name of a socially isolated or mentally ill inmate who lacks the resources to launch a retaliatory attack.

As a result, mentally disturbed inmates with limited social skills are falsely identified as gang members and sent to segregation units.

This is best understood as a consequence of racist misconceptions among prison workers, and not as a reflection on the snitch's moral character. The snitch has only two alternatives to making false identifications: he can choose not to provide any names and be punished with solitary confinement, or he can supply names of real gang members and risk his life.

Not much of a choice.

When Prison is Not Justice - In United States prisons, there is no justice for inmates with mental illness.

Whether it is voluntary or enforced in solitary confinement, extreme isolation causes mentally ill inmates to become even more symptomatic and disoriented. This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to victimization by aggressive and predatory inmates.

Punishment is not an appropriate or effective way to address symptoms of mental illness, and I think mentally ill individuals should never be imprisoned. When a person with mental illness must be confined for the sake of public safety, it should be in a hospital.

Do you think much about the lives of prison inmates? Most people don't. I can't blame them; the way the system is set up, prison life is sealed off from public consciousness.

Prison reform is important to me for a number of reasons, but the main thing I hope this lens does is get you to think about what life is like for prison inmates -- and not just those with mental illness.

Check out GrowWear's review of Prison Inmates and Mental Illness and leave a comment if you like. Thanks MiMi for the generous review!

Additional sources:

  • Hellhole
  • . Atul Gawande, The New Yorker.
  • Solitary confinement in US prisons making thousands psychotic
  • . Sherwood Ross, Straight Goods.

Crime and Punishment: Your Thoughts on Prison, Mental Illness and Criminal Justice - Should prison inmates with mental illness have more access to treatment ser

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    • jmsp206 profile image

      Julia M S Pearce 8 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      This is a great lens on a subject that is hardly ever touched upon.There is no such thing as reform in prison and for those with mental illness or addictions these prolems are not healed in anyway but are made worse with the current prison reform system if there is one.

    • cjsysreform profile image
      Author

      cjsysreform 8 years ago

      [in reply to jmsp206] Thanks for your thoughts. It's true that there is very little opportunity for rehabilitation and healing in prisons, and that's one of the reasons I think prison reform is both possible and necessary.

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 8 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      Here in the UK, mentally ill prisoners are usually sent to prison instead of receiving the help they need. Although not pleasant places, my impression is that prisons here are not as violent as those in the US although there is still violence, victimisation and intimidation and I would guess that the mentally ill are often on the receiving end because they are less able to defend themselves.

      My opinion is that prison just serves to take people off the streets for a while. Most, apart from the most terrible murderers, are released eventually. Because they have received no education or skills training inside, they have very little option but to go straight back to a life of crime. Drug addicts don't received treatment and illegal drugs are readily available inside so they come out with the same habit to support. In fact, some people, who weren't addicted, come out with a new habit.

      An excellent lens on the subject.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 8 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      Well said. I grew up going to work with my mom from time to time, and she worked in the locked ward of a state mental health institution. (Sounds like quite a place for a kid, I know, but ... long story. Suffice it to say, I wasn't in danger there.) I learned a LOT from those experiences, including compassion for the mentally ill. There's no way that truly mentally ill people should be in the same "system" as those who are just purely evil. (Although, in a way, that's mental illness too.) Well, I could ramble on far too long for a guestbook, so I'll just say again, well done!

    • cjsysreform profile image
      Author

      cjsysreform 8 years ago

      [in reply to Stazjia] "Because they have received no education or skills training inside, they have very little option but to go straight back to a life of crime. Drug addicts don't received treatment and illegal drugs are readily available inside so they come out with the same habit to support. In fact, some people, who weren't addicted, come out with a new habit."

      Excellent point. The book didn't go into much detail about drug-addicted inmates but of course this is a common and serious problem in all US prisons and, I would imagine, in most other nations as well. Many inmates with mental illness also have a second diagnosis of substance abuse or dependence. For some of these dually diagnosed inmates, AA or NA is not helpful because the mental illness gets in the way of their ability to use the tools that 12 step programs offer.

    • cjsysreform profile image
      Author

      cjsysreform 8 years ago

      [in reply to Ramkitten] "There's no way that truly mentally ill people should be in the same system as those who are just purely evil. (Although, in a way, that's mental illness too.)"

      Ah, evil vs. sick: a fascinating debate that deserves its own lens. Thanks for the idea!

    • cjsysreform profile image
      Author

      cjsysreform 8 years ago

      [in reply to spirituality] Thank you! I've had lots of visitors reaching this page from search engines, which is exciting. More lenses on prison, crime and criminal justice to come.

    • luvmyludwig lm profile image

      luvmyludwig lm 8 years ago

      I have a two sided take,First off I have bipolar disorder. Second, I was a correctional officer for 3 years in a close security(1 step under max security) man's prison with a large mental health population.

      I saw a lot of horrors as a correctional officer, but I will keep it specific to mental health here. I saw mental health inmates in zombie like states, those who had cut themselves or banged their heads on the walls.... I did see inmates who need more specialize treatment (from a human, not professional view). These horrors do happen, but there are also those who "play" the system, so it makes it difficult to determine who really needs help.

      As a former correctional officer I can say that isolation and segregation units are needed or there would be no consequences for inmates, and it would be even more dangerous for the staff. There has to be consequences. Where I worked mental health inmates were in separate living quarters,but more separation is needed .....

    • luvmyludwig lm profile image

      luvmyludwig lm 8 years ago

      Separation is needed on the yards, with jobs, in the cafeteria.... The prison system drastically needs reform. We need separate prisons for mental health inmates. The violent inmates need to be separate from non violent. And isolation(1 person to a cell)/segregation(2 people with fewer privileges) are needed, but iso should be used sparingly with mental health inmates. There has to be a good balance set up for protection of the staff and of the inmates.

      The main thing that is lacking in our prison system, is education of staff. Education is lacking, severely lacking. When people are educated, change happens. They have what they call mental health certification (where I worked) but it was only a couple days. Much more is needed. I also think that counselors need to be required to work alongside of correctional officers, because I don't think most really understood the "game" that inmates played. There needs to be team work, and there's not at this time. Great lens!

    • luvmyludwig lm profile image

      luvmyludwig lm 8 years ago

      Welcome to the Mental Health Awareness Group! I'm so glad you joined http://www.squidoo.com/groups/mentalhealthawarenes...

    • luvmyludwig lm profile image

      luvmyludwig lm 8 years ago

      [in reply to cjsysreform]

      I will check that book out, thank you for the recommendation. Also thank you for the kind comments on my BP lens.

      "I also think that counselors need to be required to work alongside of correctional officers, because I don't think most really understood the "game" that inmates played. There needs to be team work, and there's not at this time."

      This statement wasn't meant about all mental health professionals within the prison systems, but it was that way in the prison I worked with the majority. It was a constant battle.

      It is very much the officers jobs within the mental health units to notice problems and report them to counselors. We see a lot and learn normal behavior patterns, the good officers notice the changes and report them. Many don't have the proper education to be able to do that though. I would have loved to have had an in house counselor in the housing units, instead they were there 1 hour a week, if lucky. Once again, wonderful lens! :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I really like this lens 5 stars.

    • profile image

      drkathy2 8 years ago

      having worked in prisons and mental health, I have seen the problems of housing the mentally ill in correctional facilities. Many more services are needed in prisons, but with funding cutbacks. It is extremely difficult. We can keep looking for ways to improve treatment for the mentally ill in prisons.

      Dr. kathy

    • cjsysreform profile image
      Author

      cjsysreform 7 years ago

      [in reply to drkathy2] It's true, things are especially difficult in the field of progressive criminal justice and prison reform right now; I'm looking forward to being out of this recession so we can get funding for more long-term one-on-one counseling, especially for inmates with serious mental health problems. They need licensed mental health workers to be working with them directly and regularly on specific therapy goals, not just a general group session a couple of times a month.

    • profile image

      thewriterssquad 7 years ago

      Mental institutions are as much a prison for people with a mental illness as a 'normal' prison. Instead of helping these people they are bullied and often misunderstood. There is little of no professional assistance for the mentally ill in prisons, so they are obliged to take anti-psychotic drugs. The main character in my book is one of the unfortunative people who has been tricked by this system and has fallen into their web of lies. What is real and what isn't? Or is it all just in the mind? There are many people in prison for sexrelated crimes, 99% of them have been a victim themselves, there should be proper psychological assistance for those people for as long as it is needed.

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 7 years ago

      Great lens, but you knew that :) Just wanted to remind you that this is featured on the Consciousness, Awareness, Psychology & Neurology Headquarters

      http://www.squidoo.com/groups/consciousness

      It's now transformed into a lensography and I would love it if you could show your appreciation by featuring it here, or lensrolling it or something.

    • profile image

      BenOberg 7 years ago

      Great lens! I 100% agree with you on the need for reform in the current system (so much so that I just created my first lens about it). I am an AmeriCorp Member currently serving at a Re-Entry One Stop program in St. Louis for the returning citizen population. Most are great people that just made a mistake once and got caught up in the system. Most in society have a terrible misperception of this group of people. That needs to change, and will only do so through mass dialogue. Thanks for the info!

    • cjsysreform profile image
      Author

      cjsysreform 7 years ago

      @BenOberg: Hey! Thanks for getting in touch. Re-entry services are so important -- and the system needs a complete overhaul on reintegration. I think we are just starting to see some good data on what works and what doesn't....but you're right, the information is far from common knowledge at this point. I'll be sure to check out your lens.

    • profile image

      BenOberg 7 years ago

      Have you seen the Frontline Documentary on recidivism among mentally ill ex-offenders? It was one of the saddest, most eye-opening things I have watched. To put these individuals in prison hurts ALL of society. They are suffering to begin with, and our response to them committing a crime is prison which effectively makes them worse.

      I can't believe this happens.

      Here is the link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/released/

    • cjsysreform profile image
      Author

      cjsysreform 7 years ago

      @BenOberg: Thanks, Ben. Was this a recent Frontline? If it's one from a while ago, I may have seen it... but even if I did, I'm sure it's worth watching again.

    • JenOfChicago LM profile image

      JenOfChicago LM 7 years ago

      Excellent and comprehensive lens on a difficult but important subject. Blessed by a squidangel

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      i think solitary cofeinement is ok the if you were attacked in prison you would want that person to go to the whole but not for that long for years 2 or 5 that is not right let them stay in their cells but at least let them communicate with others from time to time if they have to stay there for years that is the worst torture ever especially for fighting i do understand if you stab or kill a prison guard or another inmate but getting locked up all by your self for a decade if not more all by your self that's not right if you were in there for fighting and they lock you up for a year or 2 and they release you you will be more violent and crazier than when you came in i don't think being locked up by your self helps anything it just makes you more crazy

    • pavlovswriter lm profile image

      pavlovswriter lm 6 years ago

      there are a number of prisons in the US that really need reform. If anyone has ever been to Colonial Williamsburg - creepy - anyhow - you can do a free search of all worldwide prisons and of course an inmate search for free at www.jailguide.com

    • AlaskaHydro LM profile image

      AlaskaHydro LM 6 years ago

      I have done a little time myself for non violent drug offenses in my past. You don't have to act up to go to the hole. Sometimes it is simply a procedure or protocol. For example, anyone charged with a crime in Anchorage is sent to "Echo Mod" for their first week. Echo is locked down 23 hours a day. If you were not mentally ill when you came in, you might leave mentally ill. It is a torture of sorts.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I can imagine that a lot of prison inmates may have a mental condition such as Bipolar disorder. If treated perhaps they would never have ended up in prison.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      i think that people who are mentally ill should get help not get sent to jail or prison for being mentally ill that to me is an 8th amendment violation and can be dangerous to the other inmates and that person.

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 6 years ago

      Well done and blessed by a Culture & Society Angel today.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      @anonymous: The problem with that is the fact that funding for mental health treatment from the government has been cut back. Mental health treatment facilities are being shut down and if there is nowhere else to put someone who is mentally ill and a threat to society, prison is it. I work as a nurse in a prison. It is MUCH more humane to put them in solitary than in general population where they run the risk of being raped, beaten, or otherwise abused by other inmates. Just my opinion, in a shortened way!

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      I think that prison is unsuitable for most offenders, because it doesn't do enough to address their rehabilitation and needs. Most people in English prisons have been in care as children, and/or come from very disturbed backgrounds, and what they need is not merely punishment and incarceration, but help to understand how to live within the community and to put back some good into society.by way of compensation. Prison is due for some serious reform, and more time should be spent on giving prisoners an appropriate education and treating their mental problems.

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      I got so emotional thinking about it that I forgot - here are some April Angel Blessings

    • profile image

      dirkthedog 6 years ago

      Thanks for shining a light on this terrible situation. Our politicians and people in general too often get caught up in the false idea that locking people up is the way to keep our society safe. Too often, it just makes matters worse--especially for many of the people who are imprisoned because they made mistakes while suffering from uncontrolled mental illness.

    • Addy Bell profile image

      Addy Bell 6 years ago

      Thanks for fighting the good fight on this issue. As a mentally ill person whose race and class protects me from the prison system, I shudder to think of those like me who are suffering in supermax or solitary. Best of work in your graduate studies.

    • lawpost profile image

      lawpost 6 years ago

      Persons with serious mental health issues are disproportionately represented in prison populations and in the criminal justice system in general. Fortunately, many states have recognized that the court system is not well suited to handle those with mental health problems and have conceded that merely locking up all such offenders is not productive. In order to address the particular needs of the mentally ill, some states have established so-called Mental Health Courts that focus on the longterm progress of a given defendant rather than strictly punishing the inevitable violations of a defendant's probation. Hopefully we will see this approach adopted in all states.

    • ajgodinho profile image

      Anthony Godinho 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I think everyone needs a second chance and access to a decent life. Some are fortunate to be born with it, others need to work hard for it, and still others have no opportunity to do so. Having said so, I don't know enough about prison life (apart from what is portrayed in movies) nor have taken the time to educate myself on it, so reading through this lens and watching the above video gave me some perspective. I don't think there is an easy solution in dealing with this issue because there are so many variable and priorities attached to it and other social issues, but I think every effort should be made to provide help for people to heal and change. Blessed!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I do think about what it is like for prisoners in prison more so now than I ever did. My husband just got out of prison after doing 10 years. I always thought that with love he would be okay when he got out, since the prison told him that he would be back and they weren't going to help him any. It wasn't enough of course and now he is looking at another prison term because he couldn't handle life on the outside without help. He spent a lot of time in the hole when he was in before and it makes me wonder. Maybe the reason he got out and his mental state literally broke. I didn't know what to do to help him since I don't know what prison is like, what he went through, and all that. So when he started losing it per say, I just got angry with him and we fought. After almost five months he got into more trouble and is now going back to prison. Since he has been back I found out that he needed to have thorozine for some issues that he had. The correctional department didn't bother to tell me that nor did the parole department try to help to him make sure that he could get his meds. Now he is back on it but does him a whole lot of good now that he is looking at another 5 to 10 years. He is currently been in the hole at the county jail for 60 days. He got out one day by that night he was put back into the hole for supposedly smoking. No proof that he was just they thought he was and now they are trying to keep him there until he gets out of county jail and goes to prison. So I've been doing a lot of research on this and its made me think more about what he is going through. I won't be able to completely understand because I'm not in that situation. Its just always going to make me wish that I would have done more for him, but I didn't know what to do because I didn't know what was going on. It also makes me wonder how many of these prisoners if they had been treated like humans in the first place would have gone back. We probably will not ever know.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Why is it necessary to lock up inmates for 30 to 80 or 90 days when they first enter prison? Something needs to be done. A lot of these inmates aren't violent. So what are they trying to do drive them crazy. We don't treat animals like that.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      It really is sad how prisoners with mental illness are mistreated. Most prisoners have some form of mental illness or traumatic past which needs to be addressed instead of locking them up in a cell. Thank you for this informative lens.

    • artillery lm profile image

      artillery lm 5 years ago

      very informative, and original lens. thanks for this one... very thought provoking...

    • grinagallery profile image

      grinagallery 5 years ago

      A brilliant read and an excellent insight. Id have to say I find any form of imprisonment cruel, however I do also understand it's a necessity in some cases. In regards to solitary confinement - I do find it cruel and unusual. Clearly in some cases where other prisoners safety is put at risk it maybe a necessary step, however it should be done with kindness and a sense of dignity. While they may be prisoners, they are still people.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      Very shocking lens. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for this lens. We need justice tempered with mercy. Depriving mentally ill convicts of treatment is not justice. Contributing to their mental illness with cruel and unusual punishment is CERTAINLY not justice!

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