It is way past time to overhaul the U.S. prison system. I’m not talking about a little tweak here and there. I’m talking about throwing a massive metaphorical hand grenade into the entire system and starting over from scratch. We should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing the system to have morphed into what it has.
Why should you care about this? Well, because you’re paying for it. Between states and the federal government, the United States spends about $74 billion a year housing, feeding, providing health care (such as it is in prison) for inmates and supervising the newly released.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2012 there were nearly 7 million Americans under the supervision of adult correctional systems. Translated: One in every 108 adults in the United States was incarcerated, a per-capita world record.
The problem, as I see it, centers on who we are locking up. The Washington Post reports that only 1 percent of them are in for murder, and 4 percent are serving time for robbery. The most serious charge against 51 percent of them is a drug offense.
But here is the most startling, heartwrenching statistic of them all. According to a Justice Department study, more than half of the prisoners in the U.S. suffer from a bona fide mental illness. Among female inmates, about three-quarters have a diagnosable mental disorder.
Why in the world are we locking up the mentally ill in the same place we house violent and predatory criminals? The answer is simple. Because there is nowhere else to put the “crazy people,” so we put them in jail after they act out. Many times, their families have spent years begging for mental health care for their disturbed loved one to no avail. And sometimes, the “crazy people” deliberately commit crimes knowing they will be housed, fed and minimally medicated in lockup.
Back in the mid-1950s, psychotropic drugs such as Thorazine were found to be so successful in quelling mental patients’ delusions and agitation that within a decade, society decided it was cruel to continue to institutionalize them. The abuse of patients and unsanitary conditions found at some mental hospitals were ascribed to all such institutions, so we closed them down. Patients were given a prescription for their meds and told they were “free.” No one seemed to notice that the planned community mental health centers never materialized, and when one of these former patients had a problem, there were very few places they could go for help.
The pattern continues to this day. There are simply not enough mental health beds to service everyone who needs help. Today, commitment is difficult and, sadly, we have to wait for the mentally ill to actually commit a crime before the state steps in. In the past few years, many of America’s mass murders were committed by untreated mentally ill people who should have been in a mental health care facility for their protection and for ours.
It's ironic, isn’t it? The very society that once agreed it was unjust to lock people up in mental hospitals now allows the mentally disturbed to be locked up in much more dangerous jails and prisons.
We have turned our backs on these folks, and our prisons have become de facto psychiatric facilities. We have decided that these are throwaway human beings, and we embrace the idea that being mentally sick is a crime. Our children and grandchildren are going to look back and wonder what was wrong with us.
I could fill this entire page with quotes from wardens describing the horror of what happens to sufferers of schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other mental illnesses once they enter prison. But the ugly truth is that some of those same wardens employ practices that create even more disturbed individuals.
The widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons has been shown to have a tremendously negative effect. Mostly because inmates — be they habitually violent, in danger from other prisoners or simply a rule breaker — are often held for months and even years in isolation. Do you know what being locked up, alone, for years at a time does to the human mind?
According to Dr. Stuart Grassian, a veteran psychiatrist from Harvard who is considered an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, prolonged seclusion only leads inmates to exhibit more impulsive and violent behavior.
“Ninety-five percent of these people will get out and be released back on the streets,” Grassian said on a National Geographic documentary. “All isolation will have done is make them as violent, crazy and dangerous as possible when they get out.”
So how long does the system continue doing what we know doesn’t work? When do the priorities shift away from warehousing chronic drug addicts with the hope that they will somehow cure themselves by their release date? When do we stop thinking it is morally defensible to house the mentally ill alongside career gang-bangers, rapists and killers? And, what will it take to convince prison administrators to reject the rage-filling practice of prolonged solitary confinement?
Look, I’m not advocating letting anyone out of prison. I’m suggesting it’s way past time to take a fresh look at revolutionary new ways to spend that $74 billion every year.
How about we start with a plan that separates the hard-core, habitual criminals from the mentally sick and persistently addicted? Keep the first group in a standard prison setting. Then, turn some of our prisons into psychiatric centers to help the more fragile inmates. The past confirms that an overwhelming majority of those who suffer from mental illness and addiction are not violent. They are lost souls who could possibly get their lives set straight if exposed to the right therapies and medications.
I’m embarrassed that we have adopted a toss-and-forget attitude about so many of our weakest citizens. Prison is not where they belong and it certainly isn’t where they will ever learn to become contributing members of society again. By continuing our current policies we ensure only one thing: America’s per-capita standing as the world’s No. 1 jailer.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.