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Mentally Ill In the US Criminal Justice System

MentallyIll: In the US Criminal Justice System

MarkDfriest was arrested in 1979 for non-violence crime of taking thetools that his father left for him before being officially beingprobated on him. After being convicted for the crime, Dfriest wassentenced for 4 years in prison despite of being declared to bementally unfit by five out of six court appointed psychiatrists.Because of his medical condition, Dfriest stayed in prison more thanthe four years that he was sentenced for engaging in violentactivities in San Francisco correction center (Gebreyes (par 2).

AlthoughDfriest was supposed to only serve four years in prison, his sentencewas extended to where he served over three decades behind bars. Hissentence was prolonged because while in prison he engaged in variousinfractions which include 13 escape attempts and fighting with fellowinmates. According to Gebreyes (par 3), Dfriest is a typical case ofthe increase in people with mental illnesses being locked behindbars. The case of Dfriest clearly shows that conditions in prison donot help rectify people but are more likely to make an inmate evenworst. According to Population References Bureau (par 5), theJustice System has not been effective in separating mentally illcriminals from normal criminals which is dangerous because mixingthem only worsens the condition of both.

Thispaper examines how the judicial system has failed to address theissues facing prisoners with mental illness. In addition, the paperexamines the history of medical problem and the reforms that havebeen made to improve the care and accessibility of medical servicesfrom mentally ill inmates.

TheHistory of Mental Illness

Thehistory of mental illness treatment dates back in the 5000 B.C.Eusing different methods of treatment such as medication andcounseling (U.S. History, para 1). People with mental illness weretermed to be suffering from trephine skull syndrome. Mentalchallenges have traditionally been associated to evil spiritconnection and curse. Holding of this belief has prevented manypeople from seeking medical intervention for mentally ill patients inthe society. However, because of increase in knowledge andunderstanding of the problem, there has been a great change in theperception about mental problem. In dealing with mental illness,different measures have been used such as seeking spiritualintervention and taking the victim to asylums (U.S. History, para 1).

Allthrough history, different crusaders have taken initiatives topromote reforms in the justice system in order to put mental illnessinto consideration. Dorathea Dix is one of the greatest campaignerswho have played a significant role in promoting reforms in theprisons and in the judicial system. Dix was born in Hampden in 1802.She was the daughter of Methodist preacher who was frequently absentfrom home. Due to her father’s absenteeism, her mother sufferedbouts of depression, a situation that caused Dix to be closelyconcerned about mental problems (Center for Prisoner Health and HumanRights par 1).

Dixwas a teacher, a reformer and an author and worked with multipleinstitutions and government agencies to bring reforms in the prisonsdepartment and in the justice system in the United States and Europe.Although she had experienced with mentally ill people, her firstencounter with inmates was when she worked as a teacher in prison inEast Cambridge prison. According to Dix, the prisoners were abysmaland the prisoners were subjected to inhumane treatment (Center forPrisoner Health and Human Rights par 2).

Duringthe 1800s, the prisons were unregulated, overcrowded and unhygienicfor prisoners. After travelling extensively in the United States andEurope, Dix decided to work in promoting good condition for theinmates in the United States and Europe. Dix was a campaigner forreforms in the prisons department because he argued that inmatesshould also be treated like human beings. Most of the inmates thatwere locked during and after the civil war had some degree of mentalillness, which according to Dix, required treatment and notincarceration. She wrote proposals to the government requesting forimprovement of prison facilities by improving hygiene level andproviding care and cure for the mentally challenged inmates. “Inmateshould also be accorded fully human rights regardless of the criminaloffense they have committed because no one chooses to be mentallyill,” (Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights par 3).

Parentalcustody in the 19 the century

In19thcentury, another problem that faced the United States was the highincrease in number of children engaging in criminal activities. Thegrowth of delinquents was promoted by the increase in the familiesthat were separated by the war, incarceration of the parents and theeconomic challenges that were facing the country. According to theCenter on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Organization (par 3), in the1840s, the United States constructed over 25 facilities to house thejuvenile felons. The facilities for the juveniles were later turnedto juvenile justice system. The problem was that parents took theirchildren with mental illnesses to the house of refuge which led to ahigh increase in number of people in the asylums. The increase in thepopulation of people with mental challenges made the asylum centersto be unmanageable and overcrowded. In the light of the problems,different people, such as Lord Ashley, took initiatives to uplift theconditions of facilities. Lord Ashley argued that pushing mentallyill people in colonies was denying them their human rights. Theypushed for well established mental institutions that would help thementally ill people to deal with the problems rather than pushingthem away from the society. By the end of 1800s, through thecontribution of different activists for reforms of the prisons andasylums, the United States was rated as one of the countries with thebest prisons (U.S history par 7).

Incarcerationin the 21 century and mental illness

Despitethe reforms that have been made in the criminal justice, the UnitedStates has continued to be among the leading countries in the rate ofincarceration. According to the prison policy initiative organization(par 3), the approach to violence and lack of consideration ofvarious factors such as mental problems is the trigger to the highincrease in the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. According tothe statistics by the Population Reference Bureau (par 1), the UnitedStates rates at 500 prisoners per 100, 000 residents making it thecountry with the highest number of incarcerations in the entireworld. The number of incarcerations happening in the United Statesvaries from one State to the other and from one race to the other. Inthe United States, although the African Americans are only 10% ofwhole population, they make up more than 35% of inmates population inthe country (Population References Bureau par 2). Even with theincrease in the number of people suffering from mental illnesses, thenumber of prisons and prison populations has increased than thenumber of psychiatry hospitals in the United States.

Thecountry is facing an increase in the number of incarceration ofpeople with serious crimes while putting a little focus on care forthe mentally ill people. “The prisons have become the new asylumsfor mentally ill people in the society the problem is that they areill equipped to provide care and treatment for the mentally illpeople” (Population References Bureau par 2). The department ofHealth and Human services explains that jails and prisons have threetimes of people with mental illness than there are in the hospitals.Most of the criminals in the Unites States with serious charges havesome degree of mental problems but the government has not given muchattention on metal conditions when making judgments. Although therehas been a significant improvement in the department of justice, thecountry still struggles in making effective favorable judgment onpeople struggling with mental challenges who are charged with seriouscrimes such as robbery with violence and murder.

CurrentIssues on Criminal Justice System and Mental Illness

Thereforms that were fought by Dix, Ashley and other crusaders ofreforms in the justice system succeeded in pushing for hygieneimprovement and other living condition for the prisons. However, thecampaign for the treatment of people with mental illness in theprisons has not yielded much result in the United States. Forinstance according to a 2016 research by the Center for PrisonerHealth and Human Rights (par 1), prisoners with mental illnesses arelocked up and lock down in special segregated rooms reoffered to assolitary confinement.The method of isolating the mentally ill prisoners is used as a waypunishment and preventing other inmates from dangers but does notoffer full remedy to the problem.

Inthe United States, there are many prisons as compared to psychiatrichospitals, a fact that makes prison to be the only asylum formentally challenged people. New York, Los Angeles and Cook County arecities with the largest prisons with people who are mentally ill (U.SHistory par 3). Although sending mentally ill criminals to prisonhelps to prevent the general society from danger, prison does notoffer an environment that is conducive for the provision of care. Theprisons in the United States are characterized with violence,interaction divide and gangs. Such an environment may not provide theneeded asylum for the inmate but may only cause the inmates tocome-out worse off.

Thecountry has not done enough to the treatment of prisoners with mentalproblems. All the prisoners are put in the same prisons yet there aresome with severe mental issues which only make the prisons to be moreviolent and fail to achieve its mission of correcting offenders. Theother issue is that the reforms in the health sector have madeaccessibility to medication expensive for the citizens. Although theexpansion of Medicare came with its advantages, it did not put enoughemphasis on the mentally challenged people. Due to lack of money, ithas made it difficult for prisons to hire highly competentpsychiatrists to offer treatment in the prisons.

Argumentsof the topic

Mentalillness is a challenge that can affect every member of the societyregardless of race or gender. Since most of the communities havemanaged to overcome the stigma that is associated with mentalillness, it is high time for the government to take initiative toprovide proper care to the affected people in the society. Dealingwith the issue of mental illness requires a holistic approach fromboth the community and the government. It is very important for thewhole community to stand up and fight against the mistreatment of thementally ill inmates in the prisons, in addition to showingcompassionate to the mentally challenged people in the society.According to The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights (par3),mentalillness should not be treated as a problem that is associated with aparticular group of people or race. This means, although prisonersmay have committed serious offences, it is not a guarantee to besubjected to harsh living conditions or treatment as a way ofpunishment. The Society should also be merciful to the people who arementally ill regardless of the magnitude of the crime they havecommitted. According to the argument by Bryan (para 3) all peopleneed mercy, and by sending million of people into prisons is nothelping to solve the problem facing the society.

Onthe other hand, the movement and community should unite in counteringthe root causes of increasing causes in mental problems in thesociety. The society should look for ways to teach young people goodmorals from an early age in order to help them avoid drugs and othersubstance abuse. According to Mayo (par 5), the government and thecommunity should focus on preventive measures. The Society should putfocus on warning signs and work with the government and medicalinstitutions to provide early medication before the problem gets outof hand.

Thegovernment approach to justice

Itis also the role of the government to reform the justice system toensure that all the people in the society are getting fair treatmentand judgment. Bryan (par 7) argues that mentally ill people shouldnot be incarcerated but rather taken to the hospital and be providedwith the necessary medication. Prisons should not be used as anasylum for dumping people who are mentally ill and subjecting them toinhumane treatment such as locking them down in solitary confinementrooms. On the other hand, the government should enact laws that willhelp to provide special treatment for mentally ill inmates. Treatingall inmates as criminals only covers the problems which further putthe lives of the prison waders and police officers in danger whendealing with the prisoners. Currently, inmates with serious mentalproblems are isolated from others into solitary confinement regionwhere they get little medication. Over the years, this approach hasnot seemed to work because some inmates still engage in violence evenafter staying in the solitary confinement for a long period of time.This means, it is a high time for government to decide on otherapproaches for dealing with mentally ill inmates in order to counterthe recurrence of the issue. Incorporating new strategies of dealingwith prisoners with mental problems is a strategy that the governmentcan use to reduce recidivism. For instance, in the year 2014, over76% of the inmates released were rearrested and convicted with newoffenses (Prison Policy Organization par 3). This is a clear showthat the correction methods used by the justice system are noteffective to reduce crime in the country.


Itis the role of the government and the community to combine efforts incountering the problems of mental ill in the society. Mental illnesshas over the years been considered by some communities as apunishment from God or a manifestation of being possessed by demonicpower. This has been one of the factors that have hindered peoplefrom seeking medical attention. In the story of Jake, it is clearthat his criminal activities are driven by deeply rooted problem inhis mind. Rather than rushing to lock him down every time he commitsa criminal offense, the justice system should choose a differentapproach that will help him to recover from the severe depressionthat was caused by his bad upbringing.

Differentcampaigners of reforms of the prisons such as Dix and Ashleycontributed immensely in promoting human rights and good treatment ofinmates in the prison. Although huge strides have been made towardsincreasing hygiene and good treatment of inmates in the prisons,there is still a huge gap on the treatment of mentally ill inmatesespecially in the accessibility of treatment and provision of therequired care. It requires s combined effort from the government andcommunity to push for special treatment of people who are mentallychallenged.


BryanStevenson. Just Mercy: “A Story of Justice and Redemption. 2014”.Accessed November 13 2016&lthttp://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html?&gt

Centeron Juvenile and Criminal Justice Organization. “Juvenile JusticeSystem”. 2012. Accessed November 13 2016&lthttp://www.cjcj.org/education1/juvenile-justice-history.html&gt

Gebreyes.R. 2015. Filmmaker Gabriel London On Why Inmate Mark DeFriest’sSentence Is A Case For Prison&ltReform.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/23/gabriel-london-prison-reform-mark-defriest_n_6921190.html&gt

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PopulationReferences Bureau. U.S. “Has World`s Highest Incarceration”.2012. Accessed November 13 2016&lthttp://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2012/us-incarceration.aspx&gt

PrisonPolicy. “Incarceration Rates Growth Causes”. 2016. AccessedNovember 13 2016&lthttp://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/incarceration_rates_growth_causes/&gt

U.S.History. “Prison and Asylum Reform”, 2016. Accessed November 132016&lt http://www.ushistory.org/us/26d.asp.&gt

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