Over the last 30 years, the U. S. prison system has become home to more than 350,000 individuals living with a severe mental illness — that is 10 times the number of patients that receive treatment in state psychiatric hospitals. Our under-resourced, and overcrowded jails and prisons are not equipped to support these individuals, and many who enter the system leave sicker than when they were detained. It is time to decriminalize mental illness and invest in well-informed policies, intervention programs, and treatment clinics.
Let me first offer some historical perspective to understand where we are today. Psychiatric hospitals were built in the 1800s to treat mental illness. At their height in 1959, state mental hospitals held approximately 559,000 patients. Although established on moral principles, these institutions fell out of favor during the 1950s through the 70s following accusations of patient neglect and were replaced by community care facilities and services. After a few years, the cost and logistics of community-based care became unsustainable. Thousands of people lost access to care, and without meaningful alternatives, were funneled into the prison system. In short, our prisons have become the new asylums.
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