Opinion: What is the purpose of incarcerating people with serious mental illness?

Opinion: What is the purpose of incarcerating people with serious mental illness?

During a recent conversation with a friend2, she remarked on a man in the news. He was thought to have a mental illness and was recently released from prison, then soon after was rearrested for a similar crime. She concluded therefore that he should have never been let out. Truth be told, a few years ago, I may have thought the same thing. Now, I’ve unfortunately found myself with a front row seat to what it really means to be incarcerated. So instead, we had a deeper conversation.

It seems general opinion is that if someone who may have committed a crime is locked away, then our communities are safer. Take it a step further, many believe that if someone is released from prison and is rearrested, they were probably not incarcerated long enough. In Connecticut, the mission statement of the Department of Correction states, “it strives to be a leader in progressive and partnered re-entry initiatives to support responsive evidence-based practices geared toward supporting reintegration and reducing recidivism.” Yet, the most recent documented recidivism rate is 79 percent. That’s unsurprising to me based on personal experience through my son. He is living in incarceration with a serious mental illness, or SMI, where he spends his days languishing, without any productive use of time, in a cell the size of a parking space.

Nationally, if you suffer with a SMI you are 10 times more likely to end up in prison than a hospital. In fact, America’s three largest mental health facilities are prisons. According to the CT Memo on Mental Health , almost 30 percent of our state prison population is living with an SMI. And people incarcerated with mental illness are those most often subjected to isolation, which is in direct opposition to their needs.

Our prison system is an unnerving environment where people exist in a constant state of fight or flight. I believe this holds true for many of the people working there, too. SMI can cause confusion for an individual. This makes them more vulnerable. It’s hard to imagine what this struggle might feel like when compounded by existing in a space about the size of a bathroom, where the most basic necessities, like a spork to eat with or a pillow to rest your head on, can be difficult to access.

I know some caring, dedicated mental health providers in our prison system. They are severely under-resourced, forcing treatment for SMI to be focused on symptom management. Prisons do not have the wrap-around health services that SMI requires for recovery, yet people with SMI serve longer sentences for the same crimes as people without. For my child in prison, being brought to the “infirmary” for an exacerbation of his illness has meant demoralizing strip searches and isolation for 23 hours a day. This is how mental illness is “managed” during a crisis. Alone in segregation with only the thoughts that haunt you.

Recovery for SMI is possible with timely, meaningful treatment. Instead, we keep people in a health crisis in a dehumanizing environment that serves to crush their soul and shatter their minds. I believe our state’s flawed system perpetuates the revolving door of our correctional facilities. If unable to address the unique needs of someone suffering with SMI, how could the Department of Correction ensure successful reintegration back into our communities?

So, is recidivism a failure of the individual? Perhaps it’s not the person who is the problem, rather, the person has a problem, an illness, that has only been made worse by incarceration. Consider that nationally about 95 percent of people incarcerated are released back into their communities. If we truly want to make our communities safer, we must do better to ensure people come home healthy and well prepared to reintegrate. Not stuck sick in a state of hopelessness. So much is at stake and it matters to us all.