Inmates and Mental Health Issues

As I mentioned in my previous post Books by Inmates, a whole new world has opened up to me ever since I became a pen pal to inmates. I learned so much over the last months, and much of it isn’t good. Even if we are already aware that justice isn’t what it’s supposed to be, it is worse than I thought. Around 20,000 innocent people are incarcerated in the US alone. Prisons have more inmates with mental health issues than psychiatric institutions do …

Who Often Arrives at the Scene of a Mental Health Crisis?

There are a lot more disturbing facts which merit their own articles. The fact that mental health issues and illnesses are prevalent in prisons is already troubling enough. Police instead of medical staff are usually at the scene of a mental health incident, untrained to deal with it, and thus applying force which can have disastrous consequences for someone suffering from depression, schizophrenia, extreme burnout, anxiety, or any other condition that requires medical assistance.

Inmates and Mental Health Issues

An Eye for an Eye, in all Cases?

I used to have that same way of thinking: “you do the crime, you do the time”; but how much time is fair and is too much time really a way of keeping society safe? It also never occurred to me that many were dealing with mental health issues or illnesses. Somehow, I – and I think most of us – expected that authorities took care of things. Even if mistakes were made, they should have been rectified. Right?

Well, I changed my mind about that.

Some Things Don’t Seem to Add up …

The US is the one country in the world that dishes out life sentences (with and without parole) for all sorts of crimes, even non-violent ones. In my opinion it doesn’t work, because gun violence is still rampant and the news of mass shootings is scary and disturbing.

map of gun deaths in the world
A map of gun deaths in the world – Source: World Population Review

According to World Population Review, the USA ranks second place in gun deaths, after Brazil. A list on Wikipedia demonstrates that the US has the highest number of guns per 100 inhabitants in the world …

Furthermore, people who committed terrible crimes are released early while others who did non-violent crimes are imprisoned for life …

Over-convictions are doled out indiscriminately.

In my previous article I mentioned Eric Miller (in Iowa) who got life without parole for manslaughter (self defense) … and Bobby Bostic (in Missouri) who was sentenced to 241 years in prison at the age of 16 …

==> Read here my Book Review of “Why Miller Turned Killer”

So, if convictions don’t seem to make any sense and differ depending on the state, lawyer’s zeal (or lack of it), the prosecutor’s drive to make a career and get more homicide convictions on his resumé – while forgetting one important factor, the human being whose life is being destroyed over it – is it any wonder that people who should receive help for mental health issues and even mental health illness are thrown into prisons?

I even remember signing petitions on change org and the petition site to demand justice for mental health patients who were brutally handled by police.

mental health crisis - petition

Just a small disclaimer here: I do not mean to upset anyone, and I am talking about inmates who are either innocent or who have made a terrible mistake in their youth and who lost the rest of their lives because of it, people who by the time they mature grow out of the violence, people who deserve a second chance and want to become productive members of society. This post is not intended for those who feel absolutely no remorse for what they did and are inclined to repeat abusive behavior. This post is written to address the many issues inmates face.

Mental health issues are no joke, and although they are rampant nowadays, many – even in positions of authority – do not take them seriously enough, as we can see here.

I have also been a victim of crimes, and I understand that some people may have conflicting feelings or opinions about this article, but we must remember that we’re all human beings, and the tag inmate still has a human being attached to it.

we are all humans

Mental Health Facts in Prisons

Let’s look at some statistics and facts.

  • In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help
  • 2 million people with mental illness are taken to jail every year (Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness)
  • Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have serious mental health illnesses
  • 10 to 25% of inmates in the US suffer from schizophrenia
  • In jail, those people do not get the treatment they need, which worsens their condition
  • After leaving jail, many lose access to health care, which they desperately need for their mental illness … In most cases, they end up homeless or back in prison … homeless
  • Prison can create or exacerbate mental health issues
  • Depression is the most common mental health condition in prison
  • Anxiety, mania, post-traumatic stress disorder are common as well
  • According to a 2004 survey (in which data of 18,185 prisoners were obtained) 26% had mental health conditions and only 18% were taking medication for it when they entered prison. More than 50% of those who were medicated did not receive the medication they needed in prison.
  • Rates of recidivism (the tendency to re-offend) are higher for people with mental health issues who have gone undiagnosed and untreated. (source: NCBI)

Final Thoughts

It is hard for me to discover all these stories of injustice, harsh punishments that are over the top, and a strong lack of consideration for the human beings that the states deal with. There seems to be an utter disregard for their stories, and mental health issues (when it applies) …

I also believe that we all make our own choices, but it is easy to point the finger and say “I wouldn’t …” or “I would …”

I used to point the figurative finger at inmates, generalizing them all as the same, but it is clear that that is not the case. My finger is changing direction now and it is pointing at the states and the courts and it is asking a loud WHY?!

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  1. We did not know there were so many mental health people that go to prison/jail and are poorly taken care of. They should have rights shouldn’t they for discrimination or do they not care?
    Way more families need to come forward and speak for them, so they can get the health care they need whether it’s mental or disabled.
    Thanks for the read on mental patients that are in prison and jails.

    1. Hi Matthew and Deloris,

      Yes, it’s sad that so many people who truly need help are sent to prison instead … They should have rights, and you’re absolutely right when you say that more families (and more people in general) should come forward to speak for them.
      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Hey,

    This is another really interesting and I believe important article. It is also very personal to me because my cousin is in prison. I didn’t want to say earlier in your previous article when discussing bestsellers by inmates. But, yes I do have a cousin in prison for 14 years.

    So, it is very important for me to learn about the potential mental health issues of inmates and what I and my family could do to help. I am going to share this with my aunty, uncle and my other cousins so that when they visit him, they could have a better understanding of his mental state. Maybe they will know some better questions to ask him so that he doesn’t feel embarrassed or anything.

    I will keep you updated on how he is and if any of your future articles could help him too then that would be amazing.

    Thank you for sharing and keep up the great work.

    All the best,


    1. Hi Tom,

      I’m sorry to hear about your cousin, 14 years is a big part of his life. Not an easy situation to deal with, for your cousin and also his family …
      Thank you for sharing this article with your aunt, uncle, and other cousins. I’m glad that you find it helpful 🙂

  3. Why is it that people keep voting for governments that institute policies that are so unjust? Our elected officials are supposed to be in positions of power so they can support and improve the lives of the people they represent. However, they just seem to act in ways that support the few with money that ‘helped’ them to gain power.

    The so-called justice system is obviously flawed when up to 25% of inmates are suffering mental health issues. If they were treated by the appropriate professionals instead of having heavy-handed medically untrained police banging down their doors, the majority of them would probably not end up in prison.

    So why is this situation continuing to happen? As with most things, we can find the answer when we follow the money….. It’s probably cheaper and easier to lock them up rather than treat them, and I believe prisons in the US are private (for profit) businesses?
    I believe it’s time for a serious change in the way our countries are run, a change that actually takes into consideration the wellbeing of all citizens, all forms of life, and the planet herself.

    Thanks for sharing an important article.

  4. Another important and heartbreaking article, Christine! As you probably know I belong to those lucky ones who haven’t experienced a lot of hardship caused by other people. So I cannot draw on my own experience in my reaction.

    Yet, this uneasy feeling creeps up on me, reading your article, that society as a whole is failing on a lot of people. It’s horrible that the gun lobby in the US has a bigger influence than those people who think the killings have been enough.

    I also had to think of this feeling of powerlessness. I am reading a book about slaves and that’s a similar story of people imposing power over others. Dreadful.

    1. Hi Hannie,

      It’s indeed terrible that most people in positions of power abuse that power instead of using it to improve things. It makes one feel very uneasy and I personally am a little apprehensive about traveling to the US because of the easiness with which people are dispatched to prison there or just generally get in trouble … “the land of the free”, I don’t think so …
      I’ve also read many books about the history of slavery and it is shocking, appalling, absolutely dreadful, another extreme example of people imposing power over others.
      Thank you for your comment!

  5. Hi Christine,
    very sobering text … I didn’t know about this information … It’s sad how many people suffer in prisons. It is true that many have committed hard crimes but they should by no means be excluded from life. Everyone should have the opportunity to repent. It has happened in the past that even the worst murderers repent and start a new life. But when you are convicted to 20 years or more is not possible. If we take into account what is happening in prisons and what kind of suffering prisoners go through, the chance of coming out normal is zero. If I were to ask myself, I would organize psychiatric examinations for inmates so they can maintain their health. I would also organize tribunes where they would discuss experiences and the meaning of life. I’m sure there would be plenty of those who would change their lives. Because dedication and love can change even the greatest criminal. My heart also aches at the fact that a lot of innocent people suffer prison torture. I think there is a lot of injustice, Christine, but if we have people like you who will raise awareness about this topic, there is hope.
    Just keep going and all the best,

  6. Thank you so much for addressing this very serious, prevalent, misunderstood, and mishandled issue, Christine. As someone who is currently in the legal field and currently studying for the July Bar Exam, it’s amazing to see just how flawed our U.S. legal justice system truly is, and how many of our own laws we blatantly ignore vis-a-vis our inmates. I personally know several current inmates who were wrongfully convicted of crimes (ranging from sexual assault to robbery to homicide), are currently battling depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and are not receiving the proper legal or mental health help that they need. It’s incredibly frustrating to say the least. Though I plan on practicing civil law, I still want to do my part to initiate and implement change in our legal justice system. I commend you for this wonderful article! Yah (God) bless you!

  7. I have been reading that mentally ill inmates are more likely to commit suicide.
    Suicide is the first cause of death in correctional facilities. And multiple studies indicate as many as half of all inmate suicides are committed by the estimated 15 % to 20% of inmates with serious mental illness. I feel this is a very interesting stat.

    1. Hi Ann,

      Yes, very true, suicide is a high risk … This is a very sad statistic. Something needs to be done, a lot needs to be done, many changes …

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