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Executive Summary

Prisons and jails have become America’s “new asylums”: The number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold. Most of the mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails would have been treated in state psychiatric hospitals in the years before the deinstitutionalization movement led to closing the hospitals, a trend that continues even today.

The treatment of mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails is critical, especially since such individuals are vulnerable and often abused while incarcerated. Untreated, their psychiatric illness often gets worse, and they leave prison or jail sicker than when they entered. Individuals in prison and jails have a right to receive medical care, and this right pertains to serious mental illness just as it pertains to tuberculosis, diabetes, or hypertension. This right to treatment has been affirmed by the US Supreme Court.

"The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails" is the first national survey of such treatment practices. It focuses on the problem of treating seriously mentally ill inmates who refuse treatment, usually because they lack awareness of their own illness and do not think they are sick. What are the treatment practices for these individuals in prisons and jails in each state? What are the consequences if such individuals are not treated?

To address these questions, an extensive survey of professionals in state and county corrections systems was undertaken. Sheriffs, jail administrators, and others who were interviewed for the survey expressed compassion for inmates with mental illness and frustration with the mental health system that is failing them. There were several other points of consensus among those interviewed:

  • Not only are the numbers of mentally ill in prisons and jails continuing to climb, the severity of inmates’ illnesses is on the rise as well.
  • Many inmates with mental illness need intensive treatment, and officials in the prisons and jails feel compelled to provide the hospital-level care these inmates need.
  • The root cause of the problem is the continuing closure of state psychiatric hospitals and the failure of mental health officials to provide appropriate aftercare for the released patients.

Click here for the summary of findings.


The ultimate solution to this problem is to maintain a functioning public mental health treatment system so mentally ill persons do not end up in prisons and jails. To this end, public officials need to:

  • Reform mental illness treatment laws and practices in the community to eliminate barriers to treatment for individuals too ill to recognize they need care, so they receive help before they are so disordered they commit acts that result in their arrest.
  • Reform jail and prison treatment laws so inmates with mental illness can receive appropriate and necessary treatment just as inmates with medical conditions receive appropriate and necessary medical treatment.
  • Implement and promote jail diversion programs such as mental health courts.
  • Use court-ordered outpatient treatment (assisted outpatient treatment/AOT) to provide the support at-risk individuals need to live safely and successfully in the community.
  • Encourage cost studies to compare the true cost of housing individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails to the cost of appropriately treating them in the community.
  • Establish careful intake screening to identify medication needs, suicide danger, and other risks associated with mental illness.
  • Institute mandatory release planning to provide community support and foster recovery.
  • Provide appropriate mental illness treatment for inmates with serious psychiatric illness.

A model law is proposed to authorize city and county jails to administer nonemergency involuntary medication for mentally ill inmates in need of treatment.