“What we do know is that prisons and prisons often fail women; they do not address mental health needs in a holistic way.
—Serena Liguori, Executive Director of New Hour for Women and Children – Long Island, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting women and children affected by incarceration.
In the 2020 presidential election, President Biden proposed a $ 20 billion grant to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, fund community mental health and addiction services, focus on rehabilitation of incarcerated people and put an end to private prisons.
On January 26, 2021, Biden signed an executive order to begin phasing out contracts with private prisons. But given the current congressional stalemate, other proposals for Biden’s $ 20 billion grant may not be able to pass, blocking the steps necessary for de-custody.
With more people living with mental illness in prisons than in hospitals, there is a need to start examining not only the ways in which Biden’s policies are a step in the right direction, but also how much money, time and money. energy are needed to fight mental illness. health crisis in American prisons.
“I think that as a community we need to do a lot more to welcome those with mental health issues,” Serena Liguori, executive director of New Hour, a non-profit organization that supports incarcerated women, their families. and their children. Told M / s.
The mental health crisis particularly targets women, who are three times more likely than men to experience physical or sexual abuse before being imprisoned and are over 90% more likely to suffer from mental health problems in prison.
History and misconceptions about deinstitutionalization
Before the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s and 1980s, psychiatric hospitals were prison spaces. The move towards deinstitutionalization was a response to mitigate the ways in which people with mental illness were treated. A widely held misconception about deinstitutionalization, however, is that it has led to mass incarceration.
“One of the reasons why there are a lot of people with mental health problems in prisons is not because of deinstitutionalization or because these people belong to mental hospitals”, Liat Ben-Mosche, assistant professor of Criminal Law, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Recounted M / s. “This is because of the very nature of confinement and incarceration, which is crippling and results in mental and physical deterioration.”
Although deinstitutionalization in some cities has led to incarceration, Ben-Mosche says that is not the case for all of the United States. the industrial prison complex.
Deinstitutionalization was one of the first forms of widespread decarceration, but it didn’t really help people with mental illness. The money saved from closing psychiatric facilities was supposed to be returned to the community, especially mental health centers, to support those released. However, that never materialized.
Instead of helping people with mental illness, the United States, over time, formed another kind of institution: the prison industrial complex. There are three times as many mentally ill people in prisons as in hospitals, and 40% of people with serious mental illnesses go to prison at some point in their lives.
The effects of COVID-19 on people in prison
The mental health of incarcerated people has particularly deteriorated since COVID-19. In fact, symptoms of depression and anxiety have more than tripled since the start of the pandemic for those not in prison – and mental illness and mental health issues are even more acute for those in prison.
Visits to prisons around the world have been suspended over fear of the coronavirus, further excluding incarcerated people from social support. The suspension of these visits has been particularly damaging as prison visits have been shown to help reduce recidivism and improve mental health.
In addition, most prisons have shut down inmate activities, resulting in incarcerated people spending around 23 hours a day in their cells without activities or contact with other incarcerated people. It mimics solitary confinement, another practice proven to worsen mental health.
“The pandemic has just exacerbated mental health problems that already existed. And if we don’t find ways to fund and support those with mental illness or mental health issues, we will continue to see our prisons and prisons… as the catch-all for everyone, ”Liguori said. . .
The lack of adequate mental health care support in prisons, especially during a pandemic, is similar to the story of the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals – both leave people with mental illness to fend for themselves.
Alternatives to incarceration
In the United States, one in 100 people is incarcerated, and people with serious mental illnesses are 118% more likely to receive a prison sentence. Instead of helping these people, the United States is imprisoning them.
So what should and can be done to help people with mental illness?
Organizations such as New Hour believe that alternative community-based nonprofits are essential to diverting incarceration. Liguori said these programs “have historically cost less money to run, and they ultimately protect us all, and they don’t cost millions of dollars to run.” In fact, although the recidivism rate on Long Island was 65%, once women took one or more New Hour programs, the recidivism rate was only 2%.
The irony of the mental health crisis in the United States is that the cost of imprisoning adults with mental health problems is two to three times that of detaining others. In fact, it is often cheaper to send non-violent offenders to mental health treatment than to jail. The problem is, there aren’t enough mental health services to help everyone and people in prison are often at the bottom of this list.
“It’s obvious. … The system we have is broken. This failed us for a long time. We have been talking about mental health issues for a long time. But it’s time to invest in our communities … [incarceration] ultimately creates more mental health problems, more trauma and a cycle of recidivism, ”Liguori explained.
Pretty Sparkman-Bayron, the back-to-school replication browser at Project Place, a social service agency in Boston, agrees. “I know that, for me, personally, I had a lot of childhood trauma, before being incarcerated, as do many incarcerated women. So for me, I think it exacerbated it. To the point where I definitely tried to hurt myself.
Bayron experienced the mental health crisis firsthand in his prison: “I can tell you that the drug line was probably longer than your average gig… it would skip straight to the next line… and last… a few hours, at least.
“When we put so many people in jail, instead of dealing with the problem… they are left out. So now they automatically think the problem is gone, ”Bayron said. “But the problem is not going to go away… There are new people committing crimes, but the same thing keeps happening. The players are all the same. … The game never changes. These are just the faces.
In order to fight against this crisis, Bayron insists on the need to look at the history of an individual. As a social worker, she favors listening to individuals rather than assuming benevolence or applying a type of approach to understand and fight against incarceration.
To a similar degree, Judith Willison, associate professor of social work at Bridgewater State University, and Patricia O’Brien, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, deconstruct how social work elevates prison status. .
“Social workers work in the prison state… and, unwittingly, are generally complicit in these systems,” Willison said. “Our call to action is really for social workers to understand the issues of social justice, the human rights violations that occur through mass incarceration in the prison state and our responsibility to work to dismantle the ‘Prison state. “
In doing so, Willison and O’Brien emphasize the need for social workers to partner with those who have lived through incarceration and reexamine the reasons why a person might be incarcerated.
“We’ve always had some kind of struggle between what we call the case and what we call the cause. And the case is just you, the individual in front of me, the assistant, ”said O’Brien,“ but the cause is kind of looking at the context of what got you in trouble, what prompted you to make the decisions you made.
“If we don’t prioritize helping our community understand how to care and heal, we are really doing ourselves a disservice,” Liguori said. This is all the more necessary as mass incarceration is based on a system of racism that over-incarcerates communities of color who are less likely to seek counseling due to stigma.
Likewise, Ben-Mosche thinks the government needs to invest in communities in a way that “we don’t think they are related to mental health, but they are about 1000% of mental health.” This includes universal health care, affordable housing and other means.
As such, social workers are only part of the change. Other models and ideas must be used to dismantle the criminal justice system. After working in the prison industrial complex for 22 years, Willison said, “It wasn’t until I got out of the system that I started to understand what I had witnessed.
We are all part of the prison state, it is our prerogative to change it.
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