Category: mental illness

Are drill sergeants an improvement on prisons?

By Alan Bean

As a group, criminals are deeply alienated from mainstream society.  They are more likely to have mental health issues, to be drug addicted, to be high school dropouts and to have severe learning disabilities than the average person.  Moreover, as David Kennedy argues in Don’t Shooteven when jobs programs are available “not many street guys come forward, not that many can stick with the social-service programs designed to help them, not many can make it even when they really try.  They’re heavily compromised in awful ways: They have appalling criminal records, street attitudes that are hard to shake, they’re shocky, they have terrible work habits.”

Are there exceptions?  Certainly.  Thousands of them.  But public policy is driven by the normal case, and that isn’t very encouraging.  On the other hand, prison normally makes things worse.  Prisons didn’t work as reformatories back in the day when reformation was a serious concern, and they are much worse now that we have decided to warehouse inmates.  When ex-offenders return to the free world, they are walled in by restrictions that would force the most capable and motivated person to throw in the towel.

What are the alternatives?  Some people need to be in prison.  They’re dangerous.  But what about the majority of inmates who aren’t violent?  Can’t we find a more creative response to street crime than prison and felon disenfranchisement? (more…)

“Why do innocent people confess?”

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

For most people, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which you would ever admit to a crime you did not commit. However, psychological research suggests that innocent people do confess. In fact, according to the Innocence Project, in “25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty.”

Anything from abuse or threats from law enforcement to ignorance of the law can make individuals more likely to make a false confession. This video from the Innocence Project gives a brief overview of the issue:


A recent New York Times article by David Shipler examines the role of police interrogation in false confessions. To get a confession, Shipler states, “officers are taught to use all the tricks and lies that courts permit.” Although juveniles, people with mental illnesses or disabilities, and people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are more likely to make false confessions, the average adult can be manipulated into a false confession as well:

In experiments and in interrogation rooms, adults who are told convincing fictions have become susceptible to memories of things that never happened. Rejecting their own recollections through what psychologists call “memory distrust syndrome,” they are tricked by phony evidence into accepting their own fabrications of guilt — an “internalized false confession.” (more…)

“What have we become?”

by Lisa D’Souza

A few days ago, the New York Times reported that 2,000 of the 11,000 people housed in Chicago’s Cook County Jail  have a serious mental illness.   Sheriff Tom Dart calls himself the “largest mental health provider in the State of Illinois.”  In the next two months, Chicago plans to close half of its mental health care centers.  This will exacerbate an already tragic problem.

It’s what I think of as the sordid secret of the criminal justice system: a lot of the people we lock up in jails and prisons aren’t criminals.  Many have untreated mental illness.  A mentally ill person is about three times more likely to be jailed than they are to be hospitalized.

The 1960s were a watershed for freedom in this country.  New laws enforced the rights of  all people, regardless of skin color, to vote, go to school and find employment.  People with mental illnesses and physical disabilities gained the freedom to live in the communities instead of the  institutions where many had been warehoused.  The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that from 1955 to 1980, the number of people institutionalized in state mental hospitals fell from 559,000 to 154,000.

But how well have we stood by our brothers and sisters who struggle with mental illness?  The National Alliance on Mental Illness gives the U.S. an overall grade of D, with 6 states earning a failing grade.

Our neighbors are in crisis.  They have health care needs going unmet.  Our current answer is to put them in jail.  We, like Sheriff Dart, must ask ourselves, “What have we become?”

Mass incarceration and the criminalization of homelessness

By Melanie Wilmoth

Exacerbated by the economic recession and increased home foreclosures, the homelessness crisis in the U.S. continues to grow at an alarming rate. According to a new report published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), over 650,000 individuals in the U.S. are without a home on any given night. The report, “Criminalizing Crisis,” highlights the increasing criminalization of homeless individuals.

NLCHP reports that, despite the knowledge that there are inadequate services for those who are homeless, cities continue to prohibit activities that are essential for survival:

“Criminalization measures often prohibit activities like sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violations of these laws…Many of these measures appear to be designed to move homeless persons out of sight, or even out of a given city.”

Once individuals are criminalized (and, therefore, have a criminal record), they face more barriers when trying to obtain employment, housing, public benefits, and healthcare.

In a recent survey of large employers, “over 90% performed a criminal background check on some or all job applicants.” Moreover, individuals with a criminal record may be suspended from or ineligible for public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps. Furthermore, many Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) have policies that disqualify individuals from housing based on arrest records. Thus, criminalization serves to preclude individuals from working toward economic self-sufficiency, further perpetuating the cycle of homelessness. (more…)

Deinstitutionalization and the criminalization of mental illness

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…)