How Many Times Must We Say This? We Need To Stop Using Jails And Prisons As Mental Asylums

(4-6-18) In 2007, my book: CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, called attention to the inappropriate incarceration of individuals with mental illnesses. Several others have been published since mine, including No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers. Now there is yet another new alarm being sounded.  INSANE: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth.

I always welcome books, articles, and other media stories that call attention to the number of individuals with mental illnesses who are incarcerated. Whenever I am asked, I always stress that providing better mental care for prisoners is desirable, but creating a better mental care system in jails and prisons must never become our nation’s goal.

What should our goal be?

Ending the practice of warehousing individuals in our jails and prisons who are clearly sick. I am talking about Super Utilizers. (Read Judge Steven Liefman’s House testimony here.)

Mental Health America has launched B4Stage4. The Treatment Advocacy Center has launched A Bed Instead.  The Stepping Up Initiative being promoted by the National Association of Counties (NACo), The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation (APAF), has more than 420 counties pledging to implement jail diversion efforts. Law enforcement is enthusiastic about Crisis Intervention Team training and states are implementing the Sequential Intercept Model.  

Sadly, prosecutors and judges are often the ones lagging behind when it comes to endorsing speciality dockets (mental health courts).

But all of these diversionary steps will fail if there are no community supports, no access to meaningful medical care, no housing, no jobs, or other social determinants. 

The best way to stop the mass incarceration of persons with mental illnesses is to provide individuals with help before they reach Stage Four of their illnesses.

We will have accomplished nothing as mental health advocates if we simply build a better mental care system inside our jails and prisons.

This is why I always welcome every voice that joins us in exposing the national shame of criminalizing mental illnesses – while calling for an end to asking law enforcement and our criminal justice system to solve what is a community mental health problem.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.