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Problems of Prisoners With Mental Illness

American criminal justice system is a controversial subject, and many of its aspects are issues of current interest. The United States has as much as 200,000 women incarcerated – the greatest number among the world’s countries – and the female prison population is steadily rising (Sawyer, 2015). Many of the female inmates have mental health issues as well, which complicates both their stay in correction facilities and their life afterward. These difficulties, combined with the increasing number of incarcerated women, suggest that prison is not the best place for treating the mentally ill, and other alternatives should be considered, at least for non-violent offenders.

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However ironic it may seem, the criminal justice system in its current state is housing a far greater share of people with mental health issues than the healthcare system itself. There are estimations that the mentally ill in prisons and other criminal justice facilities outnumber their counterparts in hospitals ten to one (Sawyer, 2015). Yet, if one thinks about it, caring for the mentally ill cannot and should not be the responsibility of the criminal justice system because it conflicts with its primary purpose.

The main goal of judicial officers is to prevent criminals from doing more harm to society, and this is what their training and skills are honed for. Helping people with mental conditions is not – and, by any honest estimation, should not – be the responsibility of those whose job is isolating people from society.

Those incarcerated with mental illness face difficulties both during their terms in prison and after it. In prisons, the mentally ill demonstrate a higher risk of suicide attempts and have to be put on suicide watch more often (Sawyer, 2015). Apart from that, there is also the issue of medications. The inmates take them during their prison terms and should receive a certain amount when getting out, but it does not always happen (Sawyer, 2015). The absence of medications, along with other factors, may turn former inmates into recidivism and see them back in prison shortly.

To make matters worse, more and more people with mental conditions are entering American prisons with each passing year. As mentioned above, the criminal justice system houses ten times as many mentally ill individuals as hospitals (Sawyer, 2015). There may be different explanations for this tendency, but the most evident one is simplicity. Isolating the mentally ill from society in correctional institutions is simpler than trying to aid them – but, as demonstrated by the recidivism rates, this approach does not help rehabilitation.

More importantly, still, incarceration is not the only option, as there are other approaches instead of just locking people up. Other Western countries experimented with replacing prison terms with fines and creating transition and support groups for non-violent offenders (Sawyer, 2015). There are also suggestions that this alternative would only cost a fraction of the expenditure on the current prison system (Sawyer, 2015). Admittedly, such an approach would be more complicated from an organizational perspective, as it would require departing from the established practices, but it has notable potential benefits in terms of economy and human well-being alike.

To summarize, prisons are not the best place for the ever-increasing numbers of mentally ill, but, despite this fact, host more and more of them. Providing care for those with mental illness is not a job for the criminal justice system, but prisons still remain one of the primary destinations for them – likely due to the simplicity of such an approach.

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However, both the expensiveness of this method and the difficulties it creates for correction and rehabilitation suggest that other options could be better. Greater fines instead of prison terms and transition and support groups for non-violent offenders might be a cheaper and more efficient alternative.


Sawyer, D. (Director). (2015). A nation of women behind bars [Film]. ABC.

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