Prisons Are a Very Poor Place to Treat the Mentally Ill


(Oct. 10, 2013) Yes, jails are America’s “new asylums.” Thousands of people with treatable mental illness who once might have been patients getting treatment are instead inmates essentially getting punished for being sick.

jail_barbedwireThe front-page charts in your outstanding article provide a perfect snapshot of the plunging availability of public hospital beds, where desperately ill people once received intensive treatment they needed to begin recovering.

The complete picture would also chart the explosion of homelessness, suicide, homicide and victimization associated with untreated mental illness that has taken place at the same time. Public policies recognizing the need to provide treatment for individuals with the most severe mental illnesses could stem the criminalization of mental illness and reduce the many other incalculable personal and public costs of nontreatment. For those policies to change, there needs to be some collective agreement that the conditions you describe are no longer acceptable. That consensus doesn’t currently exist. Until it does, the picture will only get darker.


Giselle Stolper, president and CEO of Mental Health Association of New York City, also weighed in with a published letter, calling the criminalization of people with mental illness, “cruel … ineffective public policy and a gross waste of tax dollars.” Deborah Bennett of Staatsburg, New York, wrote, “We need a serious national conversation about our obligations to those truly incapable of fending for themselves….”

These letters originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 8 and were written in response to “Jails Swell With Mentally Ill,” page one, Sept 26.

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