Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

The Mental Health Crisis in America’s Jails

with 6 comments

Rikers Island, America's largest psychiatric facility (photo: Paul Lowry)

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a family recently filed a civil rights complaint alleging their mentally ill relative is receiving inadequate treatment in a county jail. By itself this may seem like a run-of-the-mill civil rights claim, but it illustrates an important reality about the criminal justice system: Jails have become, by default, the primary mental health providers in many communities. As Time reported a few years ago, the country’s largest psychiatric facility is New York City’s Rikers Island jail. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca calls the jail system he oversees “the largest mental health provider in the country.”

In smaller communities, too, jails end up housing men and women with a variety of mental illnesses — often because they’ve caused some sort of public disturbance and there’s nowhere else for police to take them. Some of the most tragic cases in the field of prison law arise out of situations where a mentally ill person was arrested, and during his or her time in jail, deteriorated, suffered injury, or even committed suicide. Sometimes these cases involve negligence on the part of jail staff; but all demonstrate the inevitably poor results of expecting county lock-ups to do double duty as emergency mental hospitals. Studies have found that access to health care of all kinds is worst in local jails, where as many as 64% of detainees suffer from a mental illness of some kind. According to newly released numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the suicide rate in small jails (50 or fewer inmates) was 169 per 100,000 for the years 2000-07, compared to 27 per 100,000 in the largest jails. (By way of comparison the suicide rate for the U.S. overall is about 11 per 100,000, but there is a lot of variation by gender and age.)


Written by sara

July 7, 2010 at 12:24 pm

6 Responses

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  1. the california mental health CDCR system is broken. i have worked with them for 12 yrs. in some facilities things are as bad as ever. the new maxor system for drugs is awful and the med expirations and mistakes from nursing is out of control. the federal monitors are worthless these days. someone out there who is connected needs to do something. i am tired and old and cannot fight this battle. management in the facilities and incompetence in sacramentao and a culture of CYA is a big part of the problem.


    July 7, 2010 at 9:37 pm

  2. […] cuts to her local mental health treatment providers. In light of this news, and following up on yesterday’s post, I thought I’d note this excellent post over at Grits for Breakfast detailing a recent tour […]

  3. […] wonder if I shouldn’t put jail into the title somewhere. I’ve blogged before about how Rikers Island has become America’s largest mental health facility (more here), and about the myriad problems that […]

  4. A relative of mine suffers from depression and has had legal issues. I am doing everything I can to keep him out of jail because of the damage it would do to his already fragile mental health. This country is failing so many people, whose only mistake is to have a mental illness and then self-medicate.

    Amy Buttell

    January 11, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    • My nephew have terex syndrome and depression and he is in prison I know he does not get the proper treatment and is being abused because they think he is being violent but his desease triggers him and he blurs out words that he can’t control, does anybody out there know of any organization that can help me do something.


      October 12, 2011 at 12:34 am

  5. […] illness does play a major role in our prisons. As the Prison Law Blog wrote: Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca calls the jail system he oversees “the largest mental health […]

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