Mental Illness in Prison: What You Need To Know

Prison scene depicting mental illness in prison

Something exonerated inmate, Damien Echols, said in one of his interviews about being on death row is alarming. He talked about some of the other inmates he had come into contact with during his long stay on death row.

There were several, Echols said, who were profoundly mentally ill and so out of touch with reality that he had no way of making a connection with them.

You may be wondering how our criminal justice system got to the point where we are putting men to death who have no touch with reality.

However, this isn’t rare in prisons across our nation. In fact, it’s common. We would like to think the only people we are putting in prison are the ones who are fully lucid and who know exactly what they did and why they must serve time for their crimes.

Does it bother you to think this isn’t the case?

Mental Illness in Prison Statistics

According to Mental Health America, 1.2 million people with mental illnesses sit in jail and prison every year. That is more than half of all Americans in jail or prison.

Let that sink in. Half of all Americans in prison have a mental illness.

Three states with the least access to mental health care and the highest level of incarceration include Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The stats show there are over 57,000 people incarcerated with mental health conditions.

That is enough people to fill Madison Square Garden three times. There is a strong correlation between rates of incarceration and lack of access to mental health care.

The Sentencing Project conducted a statistical analysis in 2015 based on these two factors. It found that 6 of the 10 states with the highest rates of incarceration also have the least amount of access to mental health care. They are Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.

Many of the people who need treatment for their mental illnesses and end up in jail or prison get there through low-level offenses: jaywalking, disorderly conduct or trespassing.

The problems only escalate from there. Any previous access an inmate had to mental health services changes once they are in the system. Most of them lose their insurance benefits. Some inmates who gain access to services in prison will lose it when they leave, creating a feedback loop. The result is an unnecessary danger to society when mentally ill patients no longer have access to the prescribed medication they need.

The Tip of the Iceberg

However, this is the tip of the iceberg in some states. According to a Reuters’ report, not only were inmates of Louisiana jails not receiving treatment, they were being subjected to some of the most horrific conditions possible. Several inmates died as a result of this mistreatment.

Whether or not you believe the criminal acts these men committed warranted jail time, it is clear: there is no rehabilitation for the mentally ill in jail.

What are the solutions?

Mental Health America Lists Several Systemic Solutions:

  • Diversion programs – better than mental health courts and drug courts. MHA says pre-booking diversion programs would be much more effective. Mentally ill people encounter the system due to factors related to their mental illness. We need to help treat the underlying problems.
  • Systemic changes to access to mental health care. Those with mental illness need treatment like Assertive Community Treatment and Multisystemic Therapy as well as mental health and substance use services instead of jail or prison.
  • Early support in schools:
    • Students with disabilities are vulnerable. They are more likely to be suspended or expelled. Those who get expelled or suspended are 3x more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system and then with the criminal justice system. They also have the lowest graduation rate of any group. Dropping out of school puts kids at risk.


Over half of all people in prison or jail are suffering from mental illness. How could we change the landscape of our criminal justice system? In addition, how should our nation, if we intervene early, offer better access to mental health services, and provide diversion programs to keep them out of jail instead?

If someone you love is suffering from mental illness and is facing charges, it is critical that an experienced criminal defense attorney is by their side. Contact my office today.

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