Mental Illness and Jails: Race is Left Out of the Equation
Date:  07-21-2015

Lack of cultural competency seen as a key factor for criminalizing mentally ill people of color
July 11, 2015 Truthout

In 1843, social justice crusader Dorothea Dix went before the Massachusetts Legislature with the intention of addressing an acute problem of the day: the incarceration of people with mental illness. Her declaration to the assembly highlighted the "state of Insane Persons," protesting that they were confined "in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." Her efforts led to the creation of the state's first mental health hospitals. For the next several years, Dix travelled from state to state, repeating her cycle of advocating for special facilities for people living with mentally illness apart from jails and prisons. Though she was successful in many states, her work now stands as ancient history. When it comes to mental health, we have retreated back to the days of the "cages, stalls and pens."

In many communities, jails have become the only option for police confronted with a person in mental health crisis in public. The reason behind this is obvious: the virtual shutdown of the nation's public mental health care system for which Dix fought. From 1970 to 2002, the per capita number of public mental health hospital beds plummeted from 207 per 100,000 to 20 per 100,000. The intent of these closures was to dismantle large, often punitive mental institutions and replace them with community-based facilities that would have a more patient-centered ethos. Unfortunately, these closures took place at a moment when neoliberalism was on the rise. In the name of fiscal responsibility, most states simply did not replace mental health institutions. In many instances, jails became the quick fix to handle poor people who had mental health crises and no access to treatment.

By 2004, a Department of Justice survey found that 64 percent of local jail populations and 56 percent of those in prisons had symptoms of mental illness. More recent studies cited in a 2014 report by the National Research Council show no abatement of this situation. The presence of mental illness among incarcerated women is particularly acute. A 2009 survey of Maryland and New York jails showed that 31 percent of women had serious mental illnesses, more than double the rate for men. Read more.