Prisons and Mental Health: What is the Relation?

By: Sam Kantor 

An incarcerated student’s artwork. FPEP students report improvements in their mental health after engagement in a course.

When it comes to prison reform, mental health is often neglected. During the 1970s, the War on Drugs began, which mandated harsh sentences for any drug related activity, regardless of drug amount or first offence. Unfortunately, this did not address the issue of substance dependency’s links to mental illness (PrisonerHealth). 

The estimated 60% increase in federal prison and 50% increase in state prison populations between 1985 and 2000 may be attributed to this “tough on crime” approach (PrisonerHealth). 

Unfortunately, the system currently lacks enough support for treatment of drug-related dependencies, which can exacerbate these problems both in prison and post-release. In addition to this, according to Judge Steven Leifman from the Miami-Dade County Court, 9% of incarcerated people have symptoms related to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression (PSYCOM). 

People struggling with mental illness have an even tougher time in prison. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, the average jail stay in 26 days, and those with mental illness are likely to receive an average of 51 days. Subsequently, people with mental illnesses are nine times more likely to be in prisons than hospitals, and 40% will become involved with law enforcement at least once in their lifetime (PSYCOM). 

According to the World Health Organization, the frequency of mental disorders in prison may be attributed to the perpetual stereotype that individuals with several mental illnesses are threatening to society. However, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness points out, the majority of incarcerated people are not violent, and are awaiting trial or on trial for minor offenses, and 83% of them do not have access to essential medical care. 

Unfortunately, because the prison environment is not equipped to properly handle mental health problems, incarcerating people with mental health often leads to dire consequences such as suicide. The Treatment Advocacy Center estimates half of suicides in correctional facilities are committed by those plagued with mental health problems. 

According to PSYCOM, those suffering with Mental Illnesses are nine times more likely to be in jail than in hospitals. 

(Source: Coastal Virginia Magazine)

This begs the question, what reform approach should the Criminal Justice System take? There are several solutions proposed by the World Health Organization

  1. Provide mental health treatment and care: Direct people towards the mental health system, not the prison system. Incarcerated individuals should receive care and treatment equivalent to community standards by trained mental health staff; assessments, substance abuse treatment, and specialist referrals should be accessible both in and outside of the prison. People who require acute care should be transferred to psychiatric wards in hospitals outside of the prisons. Providers will ensure incarcerated patients receive psychosocial support and prescribed psychotropic medications. 
  1. Provide proper training of prison staff: Prison staff should receive mental health training to help understand disorders, destigmatize mental illness, and promote mental wellbeing. Additionally, there is the emphasis on increased staff recogntion and preventation of suicide. 
  1. Promote higher standards in prison management: Make prisons a better environment by providing incarcerated people better food, sanitation, physical activities, the promotion of a safe and non-discriminatory environment, and the promotion of social networks. 
  1. Promote mental health legislation to protect human rights: Partnership with elected officials can establish legal provisions that address the mental health needs of incarcerated individuals and acknowledge their right to be treated humanely. These rights include the right to accept treatment, the right to refuse treatment, the right to confidentiality, and security from violence, discrimination, and inhumane forms of treatment. Additionally, prisons should work to ensure that any National Mental Health policies/plans address the needs of the prison population. Furthermore, they should support intersectional collaboration amongst relevant stakeholders and departments to discuss and plan mental health reform in prisons.
  1. Educate incarcerated individuals and their families on mental health: Provide education about the fruition of mental disorders, attempt reduction of stigma and discrimination, encourage the prevention of mental disorders and the promotion of mental health to help incarcerated people and their families. This can teach incarcerated people to assert control over negative effects from mental illness and encourage them to seek help. 

FPEP students have reported improved ways of self expression and more positive feelings about life after engaging with course material.

How FPEP works to reduce the problem

FPEP offers art-based education which benefits the mental health of incarcerated students. These classes include Arts and Wellness Education, taught by Dr. Keri Watson in the spring of 2019, which used themes from the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. By exploring themes of the book, the course focused on the salience of arts in society and discussions around its value in everyday life. 

Additionally, Dr. Sharon Woodill taught Love, Faith, Family, and Friendship, which informed students on the salience of open-mindedness, which focused on the ability to listen and feel another person’s perspective. Both of these classes offered students a chance for reflection and self-growth.  

The students informed us that they found newer and healthier ways to express themselves, which contributed to their mental health. They also learned how to improve their relationships and challenge their thoughts, which are two crucial aspects to a healthy mind. Here at FPEP, we strike to continue to work to improve the lives of incarcerated students in all ways, including the mental health sphere. 

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