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Addressing Mental Health in Prisons

Big Picture 

Mental health is one of the most common issues that prisons face today. Not only can some get sentenced to prison time due to their mental illness instead of receiving proper mental healthcare, but also prisoners are likely to develop mental health issues while in prison. This is a huge cause for concern because there is limited mental health aid offered to prisoners.

Graphic from: “Many Californians in Prisons and Jails Have Mental Health Needs.” California Budget and Policy Center, 21 Dec. 2021, This figure illustrates the number of people incarcerated who do not receive mental health care compared to the people incarcerated who do receive mental health care.

Graphic from: “Reverse Voxsplaining: Prison and Mental Illness.” Slate Star Codex, 22 July 2020, This figure illustrates that a number of people with mental illnesses are ending up in prisons rather than mental hospitals.

Operative Definitions

  1. Schizophrenia: A disorder that affects a person's ability to think, feel and behave clearly.

  2. Psychotic disorder: A mental disorder characterized by a disconnection from reality.

  3. Depression: A serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.

  4. Mania: Extremely elevated and excitable mood usually associated with bipolar disorder.

  5. Anxiety: Intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Fast heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating and feeling tired may occur.

  6. Post-traumatic stress disorder: a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.

  7. Post-Incarceration Syndrome: a set of symptoms that are present in many currently incarcerated and recently released prisoners that are caused by being subjected to prolonged incarceration in environments of punishment with few opportunities for education, job training or rehabilitation.

Important Facts and Statistics 

  1. In 44 states, a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital.

  2. On average, in 2018, the cost of holding people (with mental illness) in federal custody was $102.60 per day per adult, or $37,449 a year (the total cost per inmate without mental illness averaged $33,274).

  3. The lasting effects of incarceration can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, altered decision-making, depression and mania.

Five-Point Plan 

(1) Provide treatment for prison inmates with serious mental illnesses.

The first and most important thing that needs to be done is to allow better access to mental health treatment for prisoners. This can be in the form of counseling, medicine and therapy. To take it a step further, inmates could be transferred to mental hospitals if need be. Overall, it would be a great step to see more collaboration between mental hospitals and prisons. 

(2) Fix the overcrowding problem in prisons. 

Overcrowding and lack of privacy are huge factors in the mental health decline among prisoners. Overcrowding can be fixed by increasing system capacity, shortening the time for non-violent offenders or turning to alternative punishments, such as community service. 

(3) Provide more activities for the prisoners. 

Many prisoners have stated that their mental health has declined due to a lack of meaningful activities in prison. To combat this, prisons should promote more clubs and activities that align with the prisoners' interests, and/or add job-ready classes. This could aid the prisoners in feeling more confident about their lives during and after imprisonment.

(4) Allow more positive social interactions. 

Negative interactions can be another cause of declining mental health, so to combat this, prisons should find ways to allow their prisoners to have more positive interactions. An example of this could be promoting more pen pal programs between prisoners and others allowing them the chance to meet new people and make connections.

(5) Ban solitary confinement in all prisons.

Solitary confinement is an extreme practice of isolation used when a prisoner “acts out,” or misbehaves. However, many researchers claim that solitary confinement is ineffective and can be detrimental to the prisoner’s mental health. Banning solitary confinement will help increase the mental health status of prisons for the better and allow the ones in charge to focus on more positive techniques that won't be detrimental to mental health. 

Why This Initiative Is Important

It is necessary that prisoners are allowed access to mental health resources in the same way that most non-incarcerated Americans are able to get access to mental health resources. When left untreated, behaviors associated with mental health conditions are exacerbated, and offenders become a larger threat to not only themselves but to those around them after they are released. Prisoners face many factors that can contribute to a decline in their mental health and there should be measures put in place to counteract this. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.



“Serious Mental Illness Prevalence in Jails and Prisons.” Treatment Advocacy Center,

Initiative, Prison Policy. “Mental Health.” Prison Policy Initiative,

“Many Californians in Prisons and Jails Have Mental Health Needs.” California Budget and Policy Center, 21 Dec. 2021,

“Reverse Voxsplaining: Prison and Mental Illness.” Slate Star Codex, 22 July 2020,

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