Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Criminalization of Mental Illness: It’s a Crime

By Mary Giliberti, NAMI Executive Director

Today, 1 in 5 people in jails and prisons in this country live with a mental illness. About 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition. This criminalization of mental illness is tragic and it’s wrong.

Instead of getting people with mental illness the treatment and support they need, our society too often puts them in jails or prisons, which are the worst places for recovery.

News reports almost routinely revealed cases that should shock the conscience of Americans. In California, the state was forced to adopt detailed regulations after videotapes became public showing prison inmates with mentally illness being doused with pepper spray and violently removed from cells.

Solitary Watch, an advocacy group that focuses on solitary confinement issues in general has begun to circulate videos to document the brutal treatment of inmates with mental illness.

Two years ago, NAMI warned the U.S. Senate that putting people with severe psychiatric symptoms in solitary confinement is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It only intensifies symptoms. Today, a NAMI fact sheet on solitary confinement is being used to influence policymakers as part of the reform movement.

NAMI has worked for years to expand Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) training for police for compassionate responses to people experiencing psychiatric crises. At a Senate hearing this year, NAMI called on the federal government to vigorously promote CIT nationwide.

At NAMI’s National Convention, Sept. 4-7, in Washington, D.C., NAMI will honor Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart of Chicago, a national champion for CIT and other criminal justice reforms.  His staff recently gave me a tour of the Cook County Jail— which, sadly, is considered one of the largest “psychiatric hospitals” in the country.  

Although Sheriff Dart works tirelessly to provide treatment in the jail, it still was sickening to see such a large number of individuals with mental illness confined because they did not get the help they needed. I also had the privilege to visit a community-based center for individuals with mental illness in the same city that provided extensive peer support and a place for people to feel part of a community.  I was struck by the different outcomes for people with mental illness and how much rests on access to good services and supports and diversionary programs.

Besides honoring Sheriff Dart, NAMI’s convention will focus on a range of criminal justice issues. The convention program includes:

  • An “Ask a Cop” workshop.
  • A networking session on “Families and the Criminal Justice System.”
  • A major topic session is entitled “Treatment, Not Jail: Diverting Veterans from Incarceration into Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment.”

But criminalization is more than a policy topic. For many people, it can be an immediate, urgent crisis. Every month, NAMI’s national Helpline gets hundreds of telephone calls for legal help:

  • Individuals want to know whether it is safe to call 911 if they or someone they love is in crisis.
  • Families want to know what to do if a loved one has been taken away by police.
  • Families struggle to cope with having loved ones in prison, sometimes for years, and worry about whether they are getting the help they need.

What can you do to help? Send a message to Congress to pass the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act this year to support alternatives to incarceration for youth and adults with mental illness.

Click here to take action

If you need more information, please feel free to also contact the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). NAMI stands for help and hope. We welcome your support.


Anonymous said...

When a severely mentally ill person, like my son, refuses treatment, society has limited our choices. He has been in and out of jail briefly several times this year. They have diagnosed him with mental illness, but medical assistance stops at the diagnosis because of his refusal for assistance.

He was on a 30 day state conservatorship after his first psychotic break. He stayed on his prescribed meds for a few months after that, then he was back to self-medication. As a parent, my hands are tied since he is an adult except to contact the medical personnel at the jails. It is a very unfortunate situation.

Denise Treesh said...

I called Debbie Stabenow's Grand Rapids office and they did not know what I was talking about - I had to read this to her - she did not seem all that interested in my call or ask why I supported this bill. Very friendly though - which does not get the job done

Anonymous said...

I have a mentally ill child, I do agree there needs to be some standards that does protect them from prison or jail. However, I personally know someone that is in jail right now who is extremely mentally ill, he has done many awful things to people that is against law, and many times has gotten away with it. At what point do you decide that mentally ill or not something is just not right. I could argue that someone would have to be mentally ill to murder and destroy a person, but does that mean that they should not be held accountable? I have raised my daughter to know her illness and make her aware that many times no she does not have choices. Yet, every action she takes is in her control in some manor and that her illness does not control her, she controls her illness.

Anonymous said...

Unless medication is mandated, along with a therapy program, I don't see how the recidivation can be avoided. There has to be a limit to individual rights where mental health and welfare is involved.

p said...

40% of the inmates today have mental health & addictions problems.Its a national disgrace and obnly shows that the stigma of mental illness has a long long ways to go!

Kathy Bruno said...

What exactly is in the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act? I have read about HR3717. The Helping Families in Mental Heatl Crisis Act.

Dail and Rose Singleton said...

Our son was diagnosed with schizophrenia over 10 years ago, but denies that there is anything wrong. He considers psychiatrists the enemy and is very devious about avoiding medication in any involuntary hospital stay. He can be highly irritable and insulting, demands his own way, and has been convicted of family violence many times. He is now at the stage where they are probably going to sentence him to a long stay in prison as a repeat offender. But medication and treatment in jail or prison is strictly voluntary, so he will be getting worse, not better.

Karen Hansell said...

So true. A relative, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and an anxiety disorder, was sent to San Quentin Prison for four years. He had set fire to the garage so the paramedics would come and take him to mental health. We had been desperately seeking ongoing care for him, but NONE was available -- only 72 hour holds, then a kick-out with no aftercare. Frankly, here in the Bay Area, the way the police seem to deal with the mentally ill is to just shoot them dead or give them a good beating.

Anonymous said...

When my husband had his first manic episode, he was thrown in jail for not leaving his workplace, as he was disruptive. His one day in jail affected him so, took him a year to recover, only due to that.

Brigitte said...

The jail lobby has a lot of influence on Congress-lots of jobs for rural areas. We need to make the argument that we can provide lots of jobs for hospitals for the mentally ill.

Anonymous said...

I did a paper on this very thing. My idea was to force the city and/or county to add a psychiatrist and psychiatry nurse on duty to screen offenders and put them together in a psychiatric ward in each major city jail. That way, they'd be serving time but in an area where they can concentrate on getting better with medications and treatment in a ward rather than a cell. It would take funding and a long time to do, but it could be done. Those that do well can appeal to the court for early release for good behavior sooner rather than later. They would also not be with violent offenders to become more violent due to association.

Anonymous said...

This is why Mental Health Courts and Veterans Courts are effective.

Paul Hays ATL said...

What NAMI National and Locals is doing is important....yet the problems loom so large.
Consider that the meds used in hospitals are not as current as those prescribed by pharmacies.
Also who gives follow-up to ex-prisoners who are discharged??
Is there coordination of services??
This issue interacts wuth class, race, poverty and homelessness.

Paul Hays (404) 377-9836

Mental Illness Policy Org said...

NAMI's only policy that was voted on by the membership is their policy on Assisted and Court Ordered Treatment (Available at ) It calls for greater use of Assisted Outpatient Treatment. AOT reduces incarceration 70% (see ) NAMI should support the membership by helping to implement AOT.