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Home > Research Articles > Prison Report: Mentally Ill Face Neglect

Associated Press

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Associated Press - October 22, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) - The country's prisons are home to an increasing number of the mentally ill, but are often unable to provide the care these inmates need, leaving them to face mistreatment and neglect, according to a new report.

Estimates put the number of mentally ill in prisons at as many as 300,000, three times the number of patients in mental health hospitals, according to the report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch. As many as 70,000 of those prison inmates are estimated to be psychotic on any given day.

But mental health services at many prisons lack the staff and resources to deal with these inmates who - in extreme cases - are neglected and treated with cruelty, according to the report, ``Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness.''

``Prisons are being asked to perform a function they are ill-equipped to perform,'' said Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and director of the organization's U.S. program.

She said mental health resources in prisons have improved over the last 20 years, but those improvements were being outpaced by the increase in mentally ill inmates.

The report attributes the increase to a lack of adequate community mental health care that could help those with mental illnesses before they do something that brings them into the criminal justice system. It also cites strict laws that require mandatory sentencing even for lesser crimes.

Politicians ``have been quite willing to build prisons, quite willing to pass punitive sentencing laws,'' Fellner said. ``They have not been willing to encourage alternatives to incarcerations; they have not been willing to provide funds.''

Prison life itself has a negative impact on people with serious mental illnesses, the report said. The extreme confinement, sometimes in solitary, combined with a lack of structured, therapeutic activity and stimulus serves ``as an incubator for worse illness and psychiatric breakdowns,'' the report said.

``Most people with a serious mental illness need structured days, they need therapy, they need far more than just medication,'' Fellner said. ``They cannot simply sit idle with their demons in a cell; it makes them worse.''

The report makes several recommendations, including urging Congress to fund grants that would allow communities to establish alternatives to prison for mentally ill offenders; treatment programs for those who are in prison; and transitional and discharge programs for those who have completed their sentences.

Human Rights Watch is an independent organization based in New York that conducts fact-finding investigations into human rights issues worldwide.

On the Net:

Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/usa1003

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