Mental Health and mass incarceration

Linda and I went to a community forum tonight hosted in part by the Knoxville Peace and Justice Center as well as other community organizations.   The subject was mass incarceration: how many people in jail just don’t need to be there and the social and moral consequences of the choices that we as a society make.

The panelists were varied.   There was someone from the sheriff’s office there,  a public defender,  clergy,  academics,  community activists and even someone who had recently got out of jail and trying to put his life back together again. 

We talked about how if you were male and black the  chances in Knoxville were sky high of you going to jail.  We talked about the role mental health issues played in people going to jail and the role they played in jail and suicide and how many people were lost to the trauma  and injury of what it meant to be locked up.   We heard about I could only call the necessary violence and injury of the experience (the things that happened even when the system was running right).

What was described was a perfect storm.   And to be honest much I heard sounded about as effective as trying to bail out the Titanic with a table spoon.

It is a mess a long time building and may be a mess a long time changing. The discussion about mental health issues really struck since so much is said about supposedly how the failure of the mental health system has resulted in so many people with mental health issues being stuck in the jail/prison system.

After listening the following seemed clear to me.

1. The issue of too many people with mental health issues in the system cannot be considered apart from the fact there are simply too many people in the system.   As long as we imprison with the frequency we imprison the issue of the mental health issues of those in jail will never be addressed.   So many people in jail have mental health issues in part because there is so many people in jail.

2.  Much of the jail system is stacked against poor people.  And people with mental health issues tend to be poor. They tend to not be able to make bail.   It  costs money to maintain contact with family.   Phone calls cost a lot.   In Knoxville there are no face to face visits anymore.   Everything is through tele-visits and that cost money too. And finally if you don’t have the money to do commissary being chronically hungry is part of being in jail.

3.  If you accept the idea that adverse experiences,  trauma,  victimization are part of the equation that fuels people to commit crimes and you accept the idea that trauma and injury are inevitable parts of jail how can anyone be surprised that for many people getting and staying out of the system are much harder than getting into the system.

4.  The guy from the Knox County jail said they were trying as hard as they could to do right by people with mental health issues and I  believe they are.   But what goes on is still indefensible.   I told him that if there was as much expected and seemingly unalterable injury at the local animal shelter as there is at the jail we would find a better and more humane option than animal shelters.

It was a piercing experience for me. The strongest thing I walked away with was little would make much much better unless we made a concerted effort to reduce our love affair with sticking people in jail.  Taking injured people and injuring them further as a consequence for their behavior does not make things safer for anyone. Without question some people deserve to be in jail.   Without question some of the people in jail don’t belong there.

Solutions that create worse problems than they solve seem in so many ways and in so many areas something we face with a committed blindness.


4 thoughts on “Mental Health and mass incarceration”

  1. Well said. Number one is something that the “lock ’em in mental institutions crowd” doesn’t seem to fathom.

  2. The private prison lobby contracts with states to lock up as many people as possible. They push for long sentences for minor violations and push to keep funding for state prison positions minimal to make the situation cry out for the “Reforms’ of privatization. That’s happening in Wisconsin NOW. The lax standards lead to some inmates acting out, which allows those who aren’t mentally ill to be labeled as such, so that the profiteers can charge extra for holding them. people who really have mental illnesses are more likely to be brought in and harshly dealt with for nuisance cimes, aren’t able to make bail, so end up there longer and their mental health problems intensify, which just adds more fuel to the fire.

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