By Melanie Wilmoth
A recent NPR story sheds light on the growing number of people with mental illnesses residing in America’s prisons and jails. Rather than treating mental illness with therapy and treatment programs, the government uses the criminal justice system as a warehouse for people with mental health issues. With little capacity to provide mental health services, US prisons and jails struggle to treat these individuals.
The increasing “criminalization of mental illness” dates back to the 1950’s when the federal government first began its push for deinstitutionalizing individuals with mental illnesses. There were two main aspects of deinstitutionalization: individuals would be taken out of state-run mental institutions (many of which had a reputation for inhumane treatment) and then treatment would be provided through community mental health programs. In theory, deinstitutionalization sounded promising. People would be moved out of restrictive state institutions and moved into community-run programs. However, deinstitutionalization backfired when community mental health services lacked funding. Thus, people were removed from institutions and received no support services or treatment for their mental illness. As a result, those who were deinstitutionalized ended up homeless or in prison. (more…)