Overcriminalization of Mental Illness

There has been a fair amount of reporting about the warehousing of the mentally ill in jails and correctional facilities. Cook County Jail in Chicago is the largest health of health services services in a system in which more than 450,000 detainees manifest symptoms of mental health problems.


Rikers Island is the second-largest jail in the United States.

According to the Times, “Rikers now has about as many people with mental illnesses—roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 inmates—as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. They make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population, up from about 20 percent eight years ago.”


See Mental Illness, Homelessness, Drug Addiction: Do These Sound Like Crimes?


No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. See:


What’s behind these walls?


New York City’s island jail complex has it all: inmate violence, staff brutality, rape, abuse of adolescents and the mentally ill, and one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary confinement. Rikers, which hosts 10 separate jails, has been the target of dozens of lawsuits and numerous exposés.


Youthful offenders too:

New York is one of only two states that prosecute offenders age 16 to 18 as adults. Prisoners come and go constantly, but at Rikers there are nearly 500 inmates in that age group at any one time, over half of whom suffer from mental illness, the report states.


How to fix a complex problem? See an interesting 62-page paper prepared by California Corrections Standards Authority:

Jails and the Mentally Ill: Issues and Analysis


It offers a “Best Practices” approach to serving the mentally ill in jails. Among things to look at:

  • Diversion: p. x
  • Screening & Assessment: p. xi
  • Treatment & Programming as soon as clinically indicated: p. xii; p. 28
  • Therapeutic Community Model: p. xiii; p. 29
  • Re-entry: p. xiv; p. 34
  • Mental Health Courts: p. 30
  • Crisis Intervention Team Training: p. 39
  • Draft Mental Health Assessment Instrument: Appendix 1 (nice tool; worth looking at)  


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