Mentally Ill: In the US Criminal Justice System

The history of mental
illness treatment dates back in the 5000 B.C.E using different methods of
treatment such as medication and counseling (U.S. History, para 1).  People with mental illness were termed to be
suffering from trephine skull syndrome. Mental challenges have traditionally
been associated to evil spirit connection and curse. Holding of this belief has
prevented many people from seeking medical intervention for mentally ill patients
in the society. However, because of increase in knowledge and understanding of
the problem, there has been a great change in the perception about mental
problem. In dealing with mental illness, different measures have been used such
as seeking spiritual intervention and taking the victim to asylums (U.S.
History, para 1).     

All through history,
different crusaders have taken initiatives to promote reforms in the justice
system in order to put mental illness into consideration. Dorathea Dix is one
of the greatest campaigners who have played a significant role in promoting reforms
in the prisons and in the judicial system. Dix was born in Hampden in 1802. She
was the daughter of Methodist preacher who was frequently absent from home. Due
to her father’s absenteeism, her mother suffered bouts of depression, a
situation that caused Dix to be closely concerned about mental problems (Center
for Prisoner Health and Human Rights par 1).

Dix was a teacher, a
reformer and an author; and worked with multiple institutions and government
agencies to bring reforms in the prisons department and in the justice system
in the United States and Europe. Although she had experienced with mentally ill
people, her first encounter with inmates was when she worked as a teacher in
prison in East Cambridge prison. According to Dix, the prisoners were abysmal
and the prisoners were subjected to inhumane treatment (Center for Prisoner
Health and Human Rights par 2).

During the 1800s, the
prisons were unregulated, overcrowded and unhygienic for prisoners. After
travelling extensively in the United States and Europe, Dix decided to work in
promoting good condition for the inmates in the United States and Europe. Dix
was a campaigner for reforms in the prisons department because he argued that
inmates should also be treated like human beings. Most of the inmates that were
locked during and after the civil war had some degree of mental illness, which
according to Dix, required treatment and not incarceration. She wrote proposals
to the government requesting for improvement of prison facilities by improving
hygiene level and providing care and cure for the mentally challenged inmates (Center
for Prisoner Health and Human Rights par 3).     

Parental custody in the 19 the

In 19th
century, another problem that faced the United States was the high increase in number
of children engaging in criminal activities. The growth of delinquents was promoted
by the increase in the families that were separated by the war, incarceration
of the parents and the economic challenges that were facing the country. According
to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Organization (par 3), in the
1840s, the United States constructed over 25 facilities to house the juvenile
felons. The facilities for the juveniles were later turned to juvenile justice
system. The problem was that parents took their children with mental illnesses to
the house of refuge which led to a high increase in number of people in the
asylums. The increase in the population of people with mental challenges made
the asylum centers to be unmanageable and overcrowded. In the light of the
problems, different people, such as Lord Ashley, took initiatives to uplift the
conditions of facilities. Lord Ashley argued that pushing mentally ill people
in colonies was denying them their human rights. They pushed for well
established mental institutions that would help the mentally ill people to deal
with the problems rather than pushing them away from the society. By the end of
1800s, through the contribution of different activists for reforms of the
prisons and asylums, the United States was rated as one of the countries with
the best prisons (U.S history par 7).

Incarceration in the 21 century and
mental illness

Despite the reforms
that have been made in the criminal justice, the United States has continued to
be among the leading countries in the rate of incarceration. According to the
prison policy initiative organization (par 3), the approach to violence and
lack of consideration of various factors such as mental problems is the trigger
to the high increase in the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. According
to the statistics by the Population Reference Bureau (par 1), the United States
rates at 500 prisoners per 100, 000 residents making it the country with the
highest number of incarcerations in the entire world. The number of
incarcerations happening in the United States varies from one State to the
other and from one race to the other. In the United States, although the
African Americans are only 10% of whole population, they make up more than 35%
of inmates population in the country (Population References Bureau par 2).

In the 21st
century, the United States has continued to experience a sharp increase in the
rate of incarceration to where it has reached to a prison population of more
than 2.2 million and over 4 million on parole (Population References Bureau par
2). The prisons have become the new asylum for people with mental problems. The
country is facing an increase in the number of incarceration of people with
serious crimes while putting a little focus on care for the mentally ill people.
The department of Health and Human services explains that jails and prisons have
three times of people with mental illness than there are in the hospitals (Population
References Bureau par 3). Most of the criminals in the Unites States with
serious charges have some degree of mental problems but the government has not
given much attention on metal conditions when making judgments. Although there
has been a significant improvement in the department of justice, the country still
struggles in making effective favorable judgment on people struggling with
mental challenges who are charged with serious crimes such as robbery with
violence and murder.  

Current Issues on Criminal Justice
System and Mental Illness

The reforms that were
fought by Dix, Ashley and other crusaders of reforms in the justice system succeeded
in pushing for hygiene improvement and other living condition for the prisons.
However, the campaign for the treatment of people with mental illness in the
prisons has not yielded much result in the United States. For instance
according to a 2016 research by the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights
(par 1), prisoners with mental illnesses are locked up and lock down in special
segregated rooms reoffered to as solitary confinement.
The method of isolating the mentally ill prisoners is used as a way punishment
and preventing other inmates from dangers but does not offer full remedy to the

In the United States,
there are many prisons as compared to psychiatric hospitals, a fact that makes
prison to be the only asylum for mentally challenged people. New York, Los
Angeles and Cook County are cities with the largest prisons with people who are
mentally ill (U.S History par 3). Although sending mentally ill criminals to
prison helps to prevent the general society from danger, prison does not offer
an environment that is conducive for the provision of care. The prisons in the
United States are characterized with violence, interaction divide and gangs. Such
an environment may not provide the needed asylum for the inmate but may only
cause the inmates to come-out worse off.

The country has not
done enough to the treatment of prisoners with mental problems. All the
prisoners are put in the same prisons yet there are some with severe mental
issues which only make the prisons to be more violent and fail to achieve its
mission of correcting offenders. The other issue is that the reforms in the
health sector have made accessibility to medication expensive for the citizens.
Although the expansion of Medicare came with its advantages, it did not put
enough emphasis on the mentally challenged people. Due to lack of money, it has
made it difficult for prisons to hire highly competent psychiatrists to offer
treatment in the prisons.  

Arguments of the topic

Mental illness is a
challenge that can affect every member of the society regardless of race or
gender. Since most of the communities have managed to overcome the stigma that
is associated with mental illness, it is high time for the government to take
initiative to provide proper care to the affected people in the society. Dealing
with the issue of mental illness requires a holistic approach from both the
community and the government. It is very important for the whole community to
stand up and fight against the mistreatment of the mentally ill inmates in the prisons,
in addition to showing compassionate to the mentally challenged people in the
society. According to The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights (par3),mental illness should not be treated
as a problem that is associated with a particular group of people or race. This
means, although prisoners may have committed serious offences, it is not a
guarantee to be subjected to harsh living conditions or treatment as a way of
punishment. The Society should also be merciful to the people who are mentally
ill regardless of the magnitude of the crime they have committed. According to
the argument by Bryan (para 3) all people need mercy, and by sending million of
people into prisons is not helping to solve the problem facing the society.

On the other hand, the
movement and community should unite in countering the root causes of increasing
causes in mental problems in the society. The society should look for ways to
teach young people good morals from an early age in order to help them avoid
drugs and other substance abuse. According to Mayo (par 5), the government and
the community should focus on preventive measures. The Society should put focus
on warning signs and work with the government and medical institutions to
provide early medication before the problem gets out of hand.

The government approach to justice

It is also the role of
the government to reform the justice system to ensure that all the people in
the society are getting fair treatment and judgment. Bryan (par 7) argues that
mentally ill people should not be incarcerated but rather taken to the hospital
and be provided with the necessary medication. Prisons should not be used as an
asylum for dumping people who are mentally ill and subjecting them to inhumane
treatment such as locking them down in solitary confinement rooms. On the other
hand, the government should enact laws that will help to provide special
treatment for mentally ill inmates. Treating all inmates as criminals only
covers the problems which further put the lives of the prison waders and police
officers in danger when dealing with the prisoners. Currently, inmates with
serious mental problems are isolated from others into solitary confinement
region where they get little medication. Over the years, this approach has not
seemed to work because some inmates still engage in violence even after staying
in the solitary confinement for a long period of time. This means, it is a high
time for government to decide on other approaches for dealing with mentally ill
inmates in order to counter the recurrence of the issue. Incorporating new
strategies of dealing with prisoners with mental problems is a strategy that
the government can use to reduce recidivism. For instance, in the year 2014, over
76% of the inmates released were rearrested and convicted with new offenses
(Prison Policy Organization par 3). This is a clear show that the correction methods
used by the justice system are not effective to reduce crime in the country.


It is the role of the
government and the community to combine efforts in countering the problems of
mental ill in the society. Mental illness has over the years been considered by
some communities as a punishment from God or a manifestation of being possessed
by demonic power. This has been one of the factors that have hindered people
from seeking medical attention. In the story of Jake, it is clear that his
criminal activities are driven by deeply rooted problem in his mind. Rather
than rushing to lock him down every time he commits a criminal offense, the
justice system should choose a different approach that will help him to recover
from the severe depression that was caused by his bad upbringing.  

Different campaigners
of reforms of the prisons such as Dix and Ashley contributed immensely in
promoting human rights and good treatment of inmates in the prison. Although
huge strides have been made towards increasing hygiene and good treatment of
inmates in the prisons, there is still a huge gap on the treatment of mentally
ill inmates especially in the accessibility of treatment and provision of the
required care. It requires s combined effort from the government and community
to push for special treatment of people who are mentally challenged. 

Work Cited

Stevenson. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. 2014. Retrieved from
on 28/1/2016

on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Organization. Juvenile Justice System. 2012.
Retrieved from 13
November 2016.

Phillips, Gary. “The New
Asylums: Jails Swell With Mentally Ill”. WSJ, 2016, Retrieved from 13 November 2016

References Bureau. U.S. Has World’s Highest Incarceration. 2012.  Retrieved from
13 November 2016

Policy. Incarceration Rates Growth Causes. 2016. Retrieved from
13 November 2016

History. Prison and Asylum Reform. 2016. Retrieved from
13 November 2016

Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. Incarceration and Mental Health.
2016. Retrieved from
13 November 2016.

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