This month President Barack Obama addressed the National Conference on Mental Health. The president made it clear, "The overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent. They will never pose a threat to themselves or others. And there are a whole lot of violent people with no diagnosable mental health issues."
The president is right on point. Most people suffering from mental illness are not a threat, yet we lock away the mentally ill at alarming rates. Seriously mentally ill people are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, according to a survey conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association, More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States.
The survey also found that about 16 percent of inmates in jails and prisons have a serious mental illness. Twenty years ago, the seriously mentally ill accounted for only 6.4 percent of all incarcerated offenders.
According to NPR, more 350,000 offenders with mental illness are confined in America's prisons and jails. More Americans receive mental health treatment behind bars than in hospitals or treatment centers. In fact, the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country are the Los Angeles County Jail, Rikers Island in New York City and Cook County jail in Chicago.
In California alone there are about 33,000 mentally ill inmates in state prison, close to 30 percent of the entire prison population. The number of suicides in California prisons has soared in recent years, to about 24 suicides per 100,000 inmates a year, a rate that is about 48 percent higher than the national average.
President Obama also noted that "less than 40 percent of people with mental illness receive treatment ... even though three-quarters of mental illnesses emerge by the age of 24, only about half of children with mental health problems receive treatment."
It is extremely difficult to find a bed for a seriously mentally ill person who needs to be hospitalized. In 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. In 2005 there was one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans.
Even fewer people with mental illness receive adequate treatment in prison.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently cited a number of states for their unconstitutional treatment of mentally ill inmates. In Pennsylvania, the DOJ found that one correctional facility, SCI Cresson, routinely resorted to locking prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, for months or even years at a time. The DOJ concluded that SCI Cresson's misuse of solitary confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness had dire consequences, including depression, psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide.
SCI Cresson came to rely on solitary confinement as a means of warehousing many of its prisoners with serious mental illness, due in part to a dysfunctional mental health program within the facility.
Page 2 of 2 - Prison medical systems were not designed nor equipped to provide quality mental health services to prisoners in need. The problem reaches beyond Pennsylvania's prisons - seriously mentally ill inmates often face overworked or undermanned staff, overwhelmed with the need to evaluate and implement treatment plans for an ever-growing population of ill inmates.
Getting a handle on the treatment of the mentally ill is more than a family or community problem.
Criminalizing mental illness is more than a tragedy. The plight of the mentally ill in prison, and on the street, must be addressed at the highest levels of government. President Obama has taken a first step - there is yet a long way to go.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.