Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Continuing Criminalization of Mental Illness
By Ron Honberg, NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs
If documentation is needed that the overuse of criminal justice facilities to house people with serious mental illnesses has gone from bad to worse, two recent events provide ample evidence.
Speaking to a reporter of the ABC News affiliate in
The second example concerns a decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in late May. Over the course of 30 years or more, increasing use of “get tough on crime” policies, coupled with reductions in services for people with severe mental illnesses and addictions disorders, have led to massive over-crowding in California’s prisons. As of 2010, some of these prisons were filled to more than 200 percent of capacity.
More than 20 years ago, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of
The lawsuit focused on mental health, known as the Coleman case has resulted in numerous judicial findings of constitutionally deficient mental health care, and a number of agreements between the state and the Plaintiffs on how to improve mental health care in the state’s prisons. Unfortunately, none of these agreements have led to actual improvements. Instead, the state’s response to inmates manifesting the symptoms of severe mental disorders was frequently to place these individuals in solitary confinement or other forms of administrative segregation, a step that is almost guaranteed to worsen the symptoms of severe mental illness.
It should be noted that the excessive use of solitary confinement, super-max facilities and other forms of administrative segregation is by no means unique to
Several years ago, the special expert assigned to oversee mental health treatment in
In an unprecedented decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the three judge panel’s decision, finding that the overcrowding in
The Court thus ordered the state to reduce its prison populations to no more than 137 percent of capacity, meaning that more than 30,000 prisoners are likely to be released. There are no assurances that all or even some of these will be individuals with serious mental illness. But, the Court’s decision sends a clear message to
While the decision is gratifying, it does not address the underlying problems that have contributed so significantly to the overrepresentation of people with severe mental illnesses in jails and prisons. As documented in NAMI’s recent report, State Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis, states have cut nearly $2 billion dollars from general mental health funding alone in the last two years, and more cuts are expected in 2011 and 2012. Impending federal reductions in Medicaid funding for states will likely exacerbate these problems. Sadly, law enforcement and corrections will continue to bear the burdens of responding to people with severe mental illness in crisis until the public mental health system is fixed.
To learn more, read the Supreme Court’s decision or visit the NAMI Blog. For an extensive report on the overuse of prisons to house individuals with severe mental illnesses, including the overuse of solitary confinement, visit the Human Rights Watch website. For more information about the NAMI Convention and the symposium “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness”, see download the convention program. The symposium will take place on Friday, July 8th at 10:45 am to 12:30 pm.