Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Student editorial on mental illness in corrections.

A student wrote this editorial on the topic of mental illness and prisons.  I'm sharing it here without comments:

I recently caught the last half hour of a documentary on PBS (The Released, by Karen O’Connor and Miri Navasky), which followed mentally ill prison inmates after they were released back into the community. The program caught my interest especially because of our recent class discussions about Criminal Justice and Mental Health in relation to Social Work. We learned the most common institutionalized settings in which mentally ill individuals live are jails and prisons. According to NAMI, at least 16 percent of the prison population can be classified as severely mentally ill. The particular program I watched examined the high rates of recidivism among mentally ill offenders.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 81 percent of mentally ill inmates currently in state prison have prior convictions. Sixty percent of released prisoners are likely to be rearrested within 18 months, but mentally ill offenders are likely to be rearrested at even higher rates. The program I watched allowed me to realize the reasons for this are the lack of community services available to mentally ill offenders as well as the general attitude of the American public. There are individuals who don’t see this issue as a priority because they feel like mentally ill offenders are just a drain on society. Alphonse Gerhardstein, president of the Prison Reform Advocacy Center, believes we should care about what happens to these people because “As long as their heart’s beating, they have a right to life and liberty.”

It is extremely difficult for mentally ill ex-offenders to obtain public housing because most housing subsidies are only available to applicants who have federal income tax forms (the working poor). Public housing authorities and Section 8 providers are also allowed to deny housing to individuals with criminal histories. To make the situation even more troublesome, most ex-offenders who are mentally ill are released from prison with little money. Even if they do find housing, lack of support services makes it difficult for them to sustain their housing.

The Council of States Governments has created the Consensus Project in order to address the recidivism rates of mentally ill offenders. They recently (in 2002) released a report which recommends planning for post-release services from the very first day mentally ill offenders arrive in the justice system. They suggest community-based agencies need to join together to access housing funding for mentally ill offenders. The report also states treatment for substance abuse and mental illness should be integrated and individuals with mental illness should be able to access all government entitlements they are eligible for such as Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplementary Security Income. 

I think this report has valuable suggestions which community leaders need to be aware of. Especially considering our current economic situation, it is necessary for everyday citizens to weigh the costs of keep mentally ill offenders incarcerated rather than working to help them successfully re-enter the community.

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