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November 25, 2015

"The Gaping Hole in the Prison Early Release Program: Mental Health Care"

MentalhealthThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy National Journal article which carries this subheadline: "Much has been made of this latest effort, but inmates who suffer mental illness will continue without the services they need — in and out of prison."  Here are excerpts:

In Oc­to­ber, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced the early re­lease of more than 6,000 fed­er­al in­mates.  While a surfeit of data on Amer­ica’s over-in­car­cer­a­tion ap­pears to sup­port the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ra­tionale for the early-re­lease of in­mates serving time for non­vi­ol­ent of­fenses, a cru­cial as­pect went un­ad­dressed in the hoopla sur­round­ing the announce­ment: What kind of men­tal-health re­sources are avail­able in com­munit­ies for in­mates des­ig­nated for early re­lease?

And, across the board, as the ad­min­is­tra­tion and ad­voc­ates un­der­take strategies to ad­dress mass in­car­cer­a­tion, what is the fate of the es­tim­ated hun­dreds and thou­sands of in­mates in Amer­ic­an jails and pris­ons who are men­tally ill?

The U.S. Sen­ten­cing Com­mis­sion’s early-re­lease pro­gram put a point on grow­ing na­tion­al aware­ness about the implcations of Amer­ica’s vast in­car­cer­a­tion uni­verse.  It res­ul­ted from a bi­par­tis­an ef­fort to re­make harsh drug-re­lated sen­ten­cing guidelines that had spurred the mass in­car­cer­a­tion of mostly black and Latino men be­gin­ning in the mid-1980s.  By year end 2014, 2.2 mil­lion people were locked up in Amer­ica’s jails and pris­ons, rep­res­ent­ing the highest rate of in­car­cer­a­tion among de­veloped na­tions world­wide.  The pop­u­la­tion of in­mates who are sched­uled to re­ceive early re­lease is com­posed primar­ily of drug of­fend­ers who will be un­der the watch of pro­ba­tion of­ficers after they return to ci­vil­ian life, ac­cord­ing to Sally Yates, Deputy U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­er­al.

But the ab­sence of a com­pre­hens­ive plan to serve the men­tal health needs of in­mates in the early-re­lease pro­gram high­lights a long-stand­ing con­cern among pris­on re­form ad­voc­ates: the tight in­ter­sec­tion of drug or al­co­hol ab­use, men­tal ill­ness, and in­car­cer­a­tion.  Men­tal health ex­perts cite the “co-oc­cur­ring” pres­ence of drug or al­co­hol ab­use and men­tal ill­ness among in­mates as a ma­jor chal­lenge, one that makes both the daily pro­cess of safely hous­ing pris­on­ers par­tic­u­larly com­plex, and which also com­plic­ates the re­turn of in­mates to com­munit­ies....

A 2014 re­port by the Na­tion­al Re­sources Coun­cil (NRC) showed that men­tal ill­ness in the na­tion’s jails and pris­ons is per­vas­ive.  Pro­duced by an in­ter­dis­cip­lin­ary com­mit­tee of re­search­ers, the re­port ex­amined data from cor­rec­tions-department sur­veys and un­covered the pres­ence of “men­tal-health con­cerns” among 64 per­cent of in­mates in the nation’s jails, 54 per­cent of state pris­on­ers, and among 45 per­cent of in­mates at fed­er­al fa­cil­it­ies.... Con­sequently, a grow­ing num­ber of crim­in­al-justice and pris­on­er-re­hab­il­it­a­tion ex­perts are fo­cus­ing in on men­tal health as a key compon­ent of Amer­ica’s mass in­car­cer­a­tion, both as a primary in­stig­at­or of im­pris­on­ment, and also as a ma­jor challenge that must be ad­dressed in shap­ing re­lease policies and pro­to­cols....

Amer­ica’s jour­ney on the path to be­com­ing the de­veloped na­tion with the most in­car­cer­ated people in the world — and the na­tion where pris­ons and jails are de facto men­tal-health catch­ments — gained steam with the “War on Drugs,” a col­lec­tion of re­gion­al and fed­er­al tough-on-crime policies and harsh sen­ten­cing laws that es­cal­ated dur­ing the 1980s as crack co­caine use in urb­an loc­ales drove up vi­ol­ent-crime rates and gen­er­ated nightly news cov­er­age of com­munit­ies in crisis.  But the spark that lit the fire un­der mass in­car­cer­a­tion in the U.S. was struck long be­fore the mid-1980s.

Be­gin­ning in the 1960s, states began rad­ic­ally re­du­cing tax­pay­er-fun­ded men­tal-health hos­pit­als and in­pa­tient cen­ters, re­leas­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of men­tally ill or chal­lenged pa­tients in­to com­munit­ies.  Known as deinstitutionala­tion, the pro­cess was deemed ne­ces­sary by state law­makers and gov­ernors in or­der to shut­ter hos­pit­als that of­ten resembled 19th-cen­tury “snake pits” — large, poorly run fa­cil­it­ies in which thou­sands of vul­ner­able men­tally ill citizens were ware­housed, un­der-served, and for­got­ten....

Dur­ing the same era, from Cali­for­nia to New York, a per­fect storm of factors af­fect­ing in­car­cer­a­tion rates loomed and then broke: na­tion­wide, thou­sands of res­id­ents who needed men­tal health at­ten­tion but couldn’t af­ford private care or ac­cess af­ford­able ser­vices turned to self-med­ic­at­ing be­ha­vi­or — through drug or al­co­hol use — which led to crim­in­al activ­ity, which in turn brought them in­to the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem at the very mo­ment when judges and elec­ted of­fi­cials coast to coast pushed for severe sen­ten­cing of those in­volved in drug-re­lated activ­ity.

In city after city, those without money to af­ford private drug treat­ment or men­tal-health care — or private at­tor­neys — were swept in­to jails and pris­ons, some­times fa­cing terms of a dec­ade or longer un­der new man­dat­ory-min­im­um sen­ten­cing rules for pos­sess­ing or selling small or mod­er­ate amounts of nar­cot­ics.  A raft of new sen­ten­cing guidelines nar­rowed av­en­ues for pro­ba­tion for those with mul­tiple drug of­fenses.  These ‘three strikes’ laws, as they came to be known, were ap­proved by a dec­ade’s worth of Con­gress mem­bers, as well as by Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ents.

Thou­sands of low-level de­fend­ants, many suf­fer­ing from emo­tion­al- or men­tal-health chal­lenges that they had been "street treat­ing" by us­ing il­leg­al drugs, then pro­duced the co-oc­cur­ring dy­nam­ic of in­di­vidu­als strug­gling with men­tal ill­ness and drug or al­co­hol ad­dic­tion.  Plunged in­to state or fed­er­al pen­it­en­tiar­ies, thou­sands re­ceived poor treat­ment or no treat­ment, and their men­tal health de­teri­or­ated.  In some in­stances, men­tally ill in­mates fell prey to vi­ol­ence from oth­er in­mates, harmed or killed them­selves, or de­veloped deep­er drug or al­co­hol ad­dic­tions.  A Feb­ru­ary study from the Vera In­sti­tute for Justice found that 83 per­cent of jail in­mates in the U.S. do not re­ceive men­tal-health services or treat­ment after be­ing ad­mit­ted....

Justice De­part­ment of­fi­cials and some state judges have star­ted to dis­play act­iv­ist tend­en­cies, for­cing loc­al jur­is­dic­tions to be­gin find­ing solu­tions for the grow­ing num­ber of men­tally ill in­mates with­in the vast net­works of loc­al ­correc­tion­al fa­cil­it­ies.  In Au­gust, for ex­ample, Los Angeles County agreed to im­ple­ment ma­jor re­forms aimed at improv­ing the con­di­tions of men­tally ill in­mates fol­low­ing strong pres­sure from DOJ....  [I]n the state that came to em­body the ac­cel­er­a­tion of mass in­car­cer­a­tion, a blue­print is tak­ing shape for achiev­ing hu­mane and fisc­ally re­spons­ible out­comes for men­tally ill people who come in­to con­tact with the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem.

November 25, 2015 at 11:41 AM | Permalink


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