In recent years, there has been an increasing level of interest about the prevalence of mental health issues for prisoners in the system. Research has collected more data on the matter and has overwhelmingly linked mental health problems with the prison system in an almost inextricable manner. Many new prisoners suffer from mental health problems, suggesting that there is no mechanism within the court system to help these patients get the help they need so they are sent to prison for antisocial illegal behavior rather than receiving interventions. For those individuals who already suffer from mental health problems, prison can also exacerbate current problems making them even more unmanageable.
Not only do a high incidence of people with mental health issues enter the prison system but spending time in prison can bring about problems like aggression, depression, anxiety and antisocial behavior. Some research even suggests that these problems are long term and persist even after the individual is released from prison (Schmalleger & Smykla, 2013). In light of these realities, it is no wonder that some people have criticized the prison system for a lacking rehabilitative measures. Prisoners often leave stints in prison still unable to manage their lives in society and as a result many become repeat offenders. Only a close analysis of how prisoners are handled in states such as Colorado can ultimately enlighten why prison appears to be such a toxic environment. Overall, research suggests that many prisons lack appropriate therapies for new prisoners, are not reliable sources of a safe environment and promote continued antisocial behavior.
Incarceration in the state of Colorado is of particular interest because the rates of imprisoned individuals is higher than the 50 state average. 506 per 100,000 people are incarcerated in the state. Not only is this number larger than the national average but it has increased four-fold within the past 20 years (Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, 2010). Similarly, the rates of mental illness in Colorado prisons has been on the rise since 1995 when only 2% of inmates were diagnosed with a mental illness of high severity. In 2008 this number rose to 21%. Although in part a result of more aggressive diagnostic processes in the field of mental health, this number clearly recognizes the prevalence of mental health problems in Colorado prisons (Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, 2010). Many other countries have far lower rates including: South Africa, Israel, Mexico, England and Wales, Australia, China, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden and Japan (Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, 2010).
This begs the question, what might be going wrong here in the United States and in specific states such as Colorado to have such prevalent rates of mental illness in the prison system? Why are these individuals not being properly treated in the first place which might reduce impulsive behaviors in the first place? The court system appears to have inadequate ways to measure mental health in the prison population. After someone is placed in prison he/she has little recourse to ask for drug/alcohol rehabilitation programs or mental health therapies. Understaffing and a lack of training in the area of mental health problems overwhelms professionals making them unable to handle the high demand for diagnosis of mental health problems which often takes months of verbal therapies.
Not only are services for inmates inadequate but there is evidence suggesting that prison itself can be a traumatic process in the like of people with or even without mental health problems. Prison can increase anxieties and depressive thinking because the individual does not feel in control of his/her circumstance. In addition there are many other prisoners in interaction with one another. This presents a complex negotiation between many people who are all going through a difficult ideal, which makes the environment ripe for discord. Racial, gender and religious issues can all aggravate these negative interactions (Cullen, Jonson & Eck, 2012).
There are times this aggression becomes so pronounced that people carry out aggressive thoughts on other inmates, which simply perpetuates the trauma throughout the prison environment. It is undeniable that someone with a mental health disorder would feel ill at ease in a prison system. In Colorado, for example, several prisoners banded together in a lawsuit against the Canon Correctional Facility for unavailable behavioral health services in addition to the prison not meeting basic human needs such as a supportive and clean environment. Research about prisons in Colorado cites problems with inadequate bed space, personnel and therapy programs (Rice, 2001). In maximum security settings, prisoners are sometimes kept in isolation to protect the safety of others. This paradigm of discipline has been shown to increase a prisoner’s anxiety, depression, aggression and/or antisocial behaviors (Cullen, Jonson & Eck, 2012). In this way it is inconsistent with a therapeutic environment.
Finally, prisoners who have already spent time behind bars often become repeat offenders. Despite recent changes in Colorado legislature, the state is on par with the rest of the country in terms of reoffending prisoners. It has been a long recognized problem that a high rate of prisoners often return to an incarcerated state within one to three years after being released. Many of the individuals who return show increases in antisocial behaviors in general. Anxiety and depression have often become a part of these individuals’ worlds (Scott, 1993; Kjelsberg & Friestad, 2008). People in this situation often come from an impoverished background in which education was not a highlighted feature of growing up. In many cases, the individual’s parents or guardians were absent, abusive and/or incarcerated themselves (Cullen, 2012). Recidivism of prison time seems a consequence of longstanding problems with mental health that persist over time.
There are many ways in which mental health issues intrude into the prison system. First and foremost it is important to combat this with better management for those patients with mental health issues even in a court setting. The above descriptions of the research cannon demonstrate that prisoners suffering from a mental health problem likely do not have access to the therapies they need. In addition, prison does not promote a healing environment, nor does it address the re-admittance into every day society. A more compassionate and all encompassing approach should be taken into consideration in this population to better address mental health concerns in a place where they are highly prevalent.