Stop Imprisoning the Mentally Ill


Target: Pamela Hyde, Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Goal: Improve treatment options for low-income, mentally ill Americans rather than simply imprisoning them

According to a new study entitled The Treatment of Persons With Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails, published by the Treatment Advocacy Center, some 356,268 men and women struggling with serious mental illness are currently incarcerated in the United States. The nation’s jails and prisons hold ten times the number of severely mentally ill individuals than do the few remaining state psychiatric hospitals.

Funding for care has been gutted over the last several decades. People with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other severe conditions are increasingly just locked up when their behavior runs afoul of the legal system–often as manifestations of an untreated illness. Many mentally ill prisoners face solitary confinement, overcrowding, abuse, and denial of treatment which can worsen symptoms. The rate of suicide is much higher for inmates with mental illness than for the general population.

Isaac Ontiveros with the organization Critical Resistance has spoken out about these failed policies and their detrimental effect on communities. “If we want to invest in the health and well-being of communities and the people who make them up,” said Ontiveros, “we have to prioritize programs and services in those communities and deprioritize incarceration, criminalization, and policing.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the federal agency responsible for reducing the impact of mental illness on communities. Demand that they focus efforts on restoring funding for treatment while working closely with the legal system to ensure incarceration is the last resort.


Dear Ms. Hyde,

Some 3.7 million Americans struggling with serious mental illness or addiction still lack health insurance. Nearly two dozen states chose not to expand Medicare, leaving people with mental illness who are living in poverty very few options for treatment. Clearly dramatic reforms are needed if SAMHSA is to achieve its worthy goals.

Nearly every state in the U.S. holds more people with serious mental illness in jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals. As hospitals have closed many with severe conditions have become homeless and increasingly are being locked up in jails and prisons. The trauma of overcrowding, solitary confinement and abuse that many mentally ill inmates are subjected to renders recovery even more challenging.

To see treatment services for low-income people reduced to this state is tragic, and yet the situation is not hopeless. With renewed prioritization of funding for counseling, medication and inpatient treatment millions of Americans struggling with serious mental illness could more fully participate in their communities. Taxpayers would see their money more wisely and efficiently spent. It is no hyperbole to say that lives could be saved. Please, commit SAMHSA to working to restore funding for mental health services while partnering with law enforcement to ensure incarceration is always the last resort.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: Christian Rohlfs via Wikimedia

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