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Prisons Are Becoming De Facto Holding Centers for the Mentally Ill

| April 13, 2011

According to an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, jails in Illinois have become “de facto holding centers for the mentally ill” due to the shortage of available beds at psychiatric facilities. In February, Iowa faced a similar problem, as the lack of available mental health services in Iowa communities led to a rise in civil commitments to their prison system. In both situations, significant reductions in funding for community-based services have forced the criminal justice system to assume a greater role in mental health.

Currently, Illinois sheriffs are pushing a bill that would set a limit on how long an inmate deemed unfit to stand trial could remain in a county jail. After the limit has been reached, the sheriff would then have the authority to authorize a transfer to the nearest state mental health facility. As the editorial correctly points out, however, this would do nothing to address the overall lack of available mental health services—even though it would reduce the direct burden on the corrections system.

According to a report by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center, a seriously mentally ill person in the United States is three times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized. And since jails and prisons are not created to be de facto mental hospitals, there are a number of problems associated with placing large numbers of seriously mentally ill individuals into jails and prisons. In particular, mentally ill inmates cost much more. In Texas prisons, for example, the average prisoner costs the state about $22,000 per year, but prisoners with mental illness cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

In addition to the costs of incarceration, recidivism rates for mentally ill inmates are higher, their stays are longer, they are more difficult to manage, and they are more likely to commit suicide. So while the massive budget deficits that states are facing makes it difficult to advocate increased spending, “cutting corners on vital services now will only cost us more down the road.”

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