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Jail: The New Psychiatric Hospital

Jail: The New Psychiatric Hospital

Here is the scenario: Police are called to a local coffee shop because the manager fears that a “man acting crazy” is harassing customers by asking them for money as they enter and leave. The police arrive; they attempt to speak to “man acting crazy”, only to learn that he is incoherent and appears to be speaking gibberish. Although he does not appear to be a threat (i.e. no weapons are found on the man), police escort him to central booking. The man is taken into central booking where he will sit for hours until he is cleared medically. After he is seen, the mental health staff diagnosed him with some type of psychotic disorder and recommended that he see a psychiatrist to prevent further symptoms from escalating. He is seen, receives his medication, and symptoms gradually decrease. You are probably reading this and wondering, why was he not sent to a hospital after being picked up from the coffee shop??? Unfortunately this is the problem in the mental health/ prison system. Individuals of color are being picked up for misdemeanor crimes and sent to prison instead of a hospital. This was my life for over five years; evaluating and recommending treatment for individuals detained at Baltimore City Jail; therefore, I can speak on this topic openly and from up close and personal experience.

In June 2016, the Afro newspaper ran an article about this issue. On any given day, dozens of men and women in Maryland are sent to jail instead of being treated in a psychiatric facility. These individuals will sit for hours, days, weeks even months until they receive appropriate treatment because the state does not have enough beds to accommodate people being ordered by the court for evaluation and treatment. Eighty-percent of people admitted into mental health facilities are arriving through the criminal justice system. According to the Bureau of Justice report (2006), 56% of state inmates, 45% of federal inmates and 64% of jail inmates had a mental health problem. The majority of those matriculating through this system are poor people of color. We know that historically, the institution of jail/prison was designed to dehumanize, criminalize and systematically oppress people of color. This system was never designed for rehabilitation. With that being said, about half of the individuals incarcerated carry a diagnosis. These individuals are unlikely to have had access to mental health resources and services, and carrying a diagnosis that may have influenced their behavior.

Jails and prisons are not created to be mental health hospitals. Inmates suffering from mental health issues need appropriate treatment and care that prison or jail cannot provide. Jail and prisons are designed to house individuals whose behaviors are considered deviant and they are a safety risk to society. When we place individuals with a severe mental health disability in that setting, are we saying they should be punished for having a genetic or chemical imbalance? When we do, we continue the cycle of stigmatizing mental health instead of treating it as the illness it is. When we place individuals with a severe mental illness in prison we open the avenue for abuse from other inmates and correctional officers which can lead to suicide and further decomposition of the illness itself. We have to look at re-structuring these indemnities so that people can receive the proper care they need

James, D.J., & Glaze, L.E. (2006). Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Yoes, S. (2016). State’s Psychiatric Backlog is a Dangerous Disgrace. Afro American Newspaper.

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