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When Did Mental Illness Become a Crime?

Mental illness is severely criminalized and stigmatized in the United States. There is a significant lack of awareness and education on mental illness in the justice system. Despite the research and statistics that show the rates and severity of mental illness among prison populations, the United States Justice system continues to put those suffering from severe mental health disorders behind bars. 

In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a survey among prisoners over 18 in state prisons and prisoners serving time in federal prisons. Several questionnaires were provided to collect data and establish rates of prisoners suffering from various health issues and the care they received. Regarding mental health care, the disorders prisoners suffered included manic depression (bipolar disorder or mania), depressive disorder, schizophrenia (or other psychotic disorder), post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, personality disorder, or any other emotional or mental condition. Statistics reveal approximately 56% of individuals incarcerated in state prisons have a history of mental disorders, 43% received a diagnosis of a mental illness, and 14% experienced severe psychological distress within the last 30 days. The problem is only 26% received mental health care from a professional since they became incarcerated, and only 6% are currently receiving treatment from a professional. Manic depression or bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder were the most common diseases prisoners in the study experienced.

In 2022, a study involved interviewing nine individuals with mental health disorders who were incarcerated, on probation, or parole. The study aimed to gain information about the mental health care these individuals received. In addition to suffering from mental disorders, those exposed to the prison environment often experience traumatic events. Whether in prison, on parole, or on probation, the mental health treatment provided was the same. The individuals not on parole or probation experienced being placed in solitary confinement denied necessary medication and given inconsistent diagnoses that could contribute to them being labeled “dangerous.” Outside of prison walls, individuals on probation or parole were forced to receive treatment even if the treatment was not beneficial, helpful, or modified for the individual’s needs. 


Between April and November 2019, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (MDOC) was under an investigation conducted by the US Department of Justice. The inquiry aimed to ensure the treatment of mentally ill prisoners adhered to the Eight Amendment. The research led to major violations. Prisoners on suicide watch were left with objects that were used to self-harm and were not supervised by staff. In addition, staff was not trained in how to prevent self-harm or handle crises. Instead of providing treatment to prisoners experiencing mental health crises, the MDOC separated and placed these individuals in restrictive housing for extended periods. As a result, prisoners committed suicide and continued self-harming behaviors. The MDOC violated the Eight Amendment on several occasions by not providing treatment to prisoners experiencing mental health crises, supervising and preventing self-harming behaviors, and prolonging the period in restrictive housing.


Edited by: Whitney Edna Ibe and Hilda Harb

Photo by: Shannon Stapleton (Reuters)

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