Very important story: Of prisons and mental illness

Very important story: Of prisons and mental illness

One of the most important stories you’re likely to read this month comes from Stuart Bramhall, an eloquent expatriate who blogs incisively about mental health issues at The Most Revolutionary Act.

Her latest post describes the tragedy unfolding in this country arising from the Reagan-era demolition of community mental health services and the ongoing privatization of the American penal system.

It’s the first of two posts, with the second yet to come, and we’ll make another exception about reprinting posts in toto since she gracefully invites sharing — for which we’re grateful.

The Prison Industrial Complex

I first became concerned about America’s growing prison industrial complex as a private practice psychiatrist in California and Washington between 1978 and 2002. What I witnessed, in essence was closure of most US mental hospitals in the late seventies and early eighties, with the ultimate transfer of American’s mentally ill from hospitals to  prisons.

Replacing Mental Hospitals With Prisons

The driving force behind closing US mental hospitals was the advent of new antipsychotics, which enabled many (but definitely not all) mentally ill individuals to be treated in the community. At the time the public was promised that money saved from closing down state institutions would be used to provide outpatient treatment in the community. However with the advent of Reaganomics in 1980, this never happened. Rather than increasing, funding for community mental health steadily declined. And as more and more options for community care dried up, our penitentiaries steadily filled up with mentally ill non-violent offenders who were unable to get help in the community.

At considerable cost to the taxpayer, I might add. Given that the costs of keeping a mentally ill individual in a penitentiary are three to six time what it costs to treat them at an outpatient mental health center.

As of 2006, the last time mentally ill offender statistics were compiled, the US prison system had become the largest mental health provider in the country – with nearly 50 percent of inmates reporting mental health problems. (See and

With another 20-30% in prison for crimes related to substance abuse (for which they never get treatment, either in prison or in the community).

High Prison Rates Are Economically Driven

Aside from the absolute barbarity of a criminal justice system that warehouses vulnerable mentally ill patients with sociopathic violent offenders, what really troubles me is that the main drivers of our skyrocketing incarceration rate are no longer political – but economic.

It simply can’t be argued any longer that longer prison sentences and more prisons are essential to reduce violent crime. Statistics show that both violent and property crime have been steadily declining since 1990. Yet rates of incarceration in the US continue to climb.

Presently the US has more people (2.1 million) in prison than any other country in the world. In fact we recently exceeded China, which has 1.6 million people in prison, despite having four times the population. Statistics also show that nearly half (one million) of our prison population are inside for non-violent offenses.

In other words, despite the political reality that our prisons our costing taxpayers billions of dollars by warehousing people who could be better treated and managed in the community, there are powerful economic drivers to keep locking more and more of them up. In fact incarceration and detention has turned into a multibillion dollar growth industry.

Moreover Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Wackenhut and the 16 other for-profit prison companies are all big donors to the campaigns of federal and state lawmakers seeking to expand both prison populations and prison privatization (CCA, which has a monopoly on running immigration detention facilities, also helped write the Arizona anti-immigration law).

To say nothing of the dozens of US corporations employing cheap prison labor (as an alternative to outsourcing) to improve their bottom line.

Implications for Prison Reform

These powerful economic drivers have some very important ramifications for prison reform advocates:

  1. Money spent on private prisons is basically corporate welfare – taxpayer money that is winding up in the pockets of private corporations with little or no oversight or accountability.
  2. Genuine prison reform is unlikely to come about unless these corporations themselves are targeted. As we have seen with the anemic Wall Street bail-outs, federal and state lawmakers are totally unwilling to undertake major reform that potentially affects the bottom line of their corporate donors.

To be continued with a list of players making big bucks off our burgeoning prison industrial complex.


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