NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Many Prisoners are Mentally Ill

July 12, 1999

A new study from the U.S. Department of Justice calculates that about 16 percent of prisoners in the U.S. are mentally ill. Many of them lead a revolving-door existence -- from the streets to prison, then back on the streets before returning again to prison, the report noted.

  • Of the 1.8 million Americans now behind bars, 283,800 are emotionally disturbed.
  • Mentally ill inmates in state prisons were more than twice as likely to have been homeless before their arrests than other inmates, twice as likely to have been physically or sexually abused in childhood and far more likely to have been using drugs or alcohol.
  • More than three-quarters of them had been sentenced to jail or prison before -- and half had served three or more prior sentences.
  • The highest rates of mental illnesses were among white female state prisoners, with an estimated 29 percent of them reporting emotional disorders -- compared with 20 percent of black female prisoners.

Overall, 22.6 percent of white state prisoners were identified as mentally ill -- compared with 13.5 percent of black prisoners.

A great many public mental hospitals were closed in the 1960s, when new antipsychotic drugs made medicating patients in the community seem a humane alternative to long-term hospitalization. But many of the mentally ill who were released either refused or forgot to take their medications, and jails often became the only institutions available. From a high of 559,000 in 1955, the number of patients in state hospitals dropped to 69,000 in 1995.

Meanwhile, the number of jail and prison beds has quadrupled in the last 25 years.

Source: Fox Butterfield, "Prisons Brim with Mentally Ill, Study Finds," New York Times, July 12, 1999.


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