The Criminalized Status of Mental Illness

The recorded statistics suggest that 20% of inmates in jails and 15% of inmates in prisons are diagnosed with one or more serious mental conditions (such as bipolar, schizophrenia, or depression). When an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis, they are more likely to encounter the cold brutality of aggressive police, rather than receive treatment and attention from trained psychiatric specialists. Annually, 2 million people are booked into jails with serious mental health conditions (15% of men, and 30% of women). And in 2014, there were 356,000 individuals with diagnosed serious mental illness concerns who were incarcerated; meanwhile, only 35,000 individuals were treated in state hospitals for serious mental illness that same year. That means the United States is locking up the mentally ill rather than treating them at a margin that exceeds 10 to 1! Inmates with mental health conditions also tend to remain in custody longer and receive heavier sentences. This seems counter-intuitive to a sense of justice (because it is), but it is easy to see how the most vulnerable members of our society could be quite easily victimized by the complexities of an uncaring system. Consequently, the mentally ill are overrepresented in the prison population at an estimated rate of two to four times the general population.

Iowa state penitentiaries, for example, exhibit a statistical prevalence of mental illness approaching 50%; and similar rates of prevalence have been reported in other states. What’s possibly more troubling, is that in a cross-sectional study, inmates with diagnosed mental health conditions were much more likely to break correction facility rules, and were also more likely to engage in violent altercations. As such, inmates with mental health conditions are difficult to manage, are at great risk of recidivism, hospitalization, and suicide during their period of incarceration – and upon release. The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the sad reality is that correctional facilities have become the nation’s ad hoc mental health provider. In sum, the systemic mass incarceration of mentally ill persons in the United States creates a destructive cycle wherein the problem is exacerbated rather than alleviated.

Mental Illness

What does it mean to have a mental illness? While it is easy enough to tell when someone has a cold, or if they have a broken bone, it is far less easily discerned whether the mind is in disorder. In fact, thoughts and ideas regarding what constitutes sanity has changed quite markedly throughout time. Quite simply, insanity is merely a perception of reality that is far enough in the minority. At certain points throughout human history, quite sound ideas about reality were regarded as pure madness. Due to the indiscernible nature of sanity, there is no easy answer for what is mental illness. This is because in order to define a mind in disorder, science must first define a mind that is truly in order. Scientific measurement is dependent upon the existence of a control group to test hypotheses against. And since philosophers, psychiatrists, and even mathematicians have been arguing over the nature of the mind for millennia without coming to any firm conclusion, we can be rather certain that any measurement of mental health is quite arbitrary and should be considered with a grain of salt. Society cannot define a sick mind, because we cannot even define the mind. Mind is a concept that has continued to escape quantification, and will likely continue to do so for some time. As such, we cannot define mental illness.

However, unlike more philosophical discussion regarding the nature of the mind, we can readily observe the suffering caused by labeling individuals as mentally ill. Society does not embrace its most vulnerable members and welcome them into their homes; police do not reason with schizophrenics who brandish their fists and talk of unseeable deities; and psychiatric specialists do not walk the streets administering aid in times of crisis. No—our society generally takes people who do not easily fit into the clockwork of production, and swiftly discards them as broken cogs. But people are not merely nodes of production. And some people cannot operate within the contrivances of modernity. Mental illness is whatever a certain body of contemporary knowledge determines it to be. Nowadays, “serious mental illness” generally encapsulates ideas like schizophrenia, bipolar, and depression. These conditions, uniformly, render persons generally incapable of production in the typical capitalist paradigm. While our primeval tribal history suggests that humanity once revered cognitive idiosyncrasies as shamanic gifts that permit the afflicted to witness other realms of consciousness and dive into the depths of emotion. Even modern case studies have shown that modern schizophrenics who receive shamanic training are more easily able to navigate their difficult consciousness. The point being: if society validates conditions typically labeled as mental illness, rather than merely labeling those experiencing those cognitive idiosyncrasies with madness, it becomes much easier for persons experiencing non-normative consciousness to endure the inherent difficulties of such conditions and in turn successfully lead a happy life. Nowadays, mental illness is stigmatized rather than legitimized as a socially valuable contribution. But hopefully one day that will change.

Effects of Incarceration on Mental Illness

The disproportionately high rates of mental illness among prisoners can be attributed to several factors, namely: misconceptions about mental illness; social intolerance for deviance; and a general failure by the mental health apparatus to address mental health issues writ large. Many mental health disorders are further exacerbated by the degrading conditions of incarceration, and previously healthy individuals may even develop diagnosable illnesses as a direct result of the stress associated with jail or prison conditions. Within society, people with mental disorders are generally marginalized and stigmatized. These biases do not dissolve while incarcerated, and many mentally ill inmates find themselves relegated to a sub-class within the already dehumanizing conditions of confinement. This is not a future that anyone deserves; let alone the answer to treating mental disorders.

The prison system is not equipped to heal mental disorders. In fact, it is quite the contrary. The jails and prisons that pervade our society are locales of torment— facilities intended to cause discomfort. These facilities exist because people generally like the idea of there being a visceral justice delivered upon the flesh of the transgressor. However, the satisfaction of that primitive call for bloody satisfaction will not address the root of the problem—and will actually make it much worse! What individuals experiencing a mental health crisis need is a support network, not punishment.

Our Position

At Wasatch Defense Lawyers we believe in treating our clients holistically. Our experienced attorneys understand the difficulties associated with mental illness and will strive to achieve the best outcome for you or your loved one.

Craig R. Chlarson

Everyone deserves aggressive, experienced legal representation.  Your solution begins with Wasatch Defense Lawyers.
Craig R. Chlarson

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