(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Rosary High School

Opinion: We need mental health help in prisons

With COVID-19 running rampant in the United States, criminal justice systems have needed to respond to the virus as well. For one, as reported in NPR, California has been releasing thousands upon thousands of prisoners in order to reduce overcrowding and viral transmission. The release of these prisoners begs the question of how well these inmates will reintegrate back into society. 

The book The Growth of Incarceration in the United States describes the process of incarceration and the many negative consequences that come with increased incarceration, especially when it is unnecessary.

One of the main culprits for increased incarceration in the United States is mental health. The solution to this problem is to make sure that people who are in prison receive the mental health care they need.

As reported in The Growth of Incarceration,” a survey found that more than half of all inmates had some form of mental illness. Because of this high number of mental health problems for inmates, it only makes sense for the inmates to receive mental health attention.

This is not only just humane and the right thing to do, but it is also a way to reduce their likelihood of committing future crimes and ending up back into prisons if and when they are released. 

However, providing health care for prisoners is easier said than done. Because of overcrowding in prisons, there are many prisoners that need mental health care, therefore, the demand and need for services are very high.

At the same time, there is a limited amount of people that would like to come care for people in prison. Not only that, but the combination of overcrowding and lack of interest in caring for prisoners also makes matters even worse, since, as explained in The Growth of Incarceration,  it can lead to a staff culture of “cynicism and fear,” making it more difficult to receive clinicians and care. 

The problem of overcrowding further makes effective mental health care difficult to accomplish in prisons, which can result in even more mental decline and an increase in the chance for more crimes to be committed in the future.  

One possible solution to the mental health crisis in prisons is to have the inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues sent to special incarceration facilities specifically prepared and trained to deal with such prisoners.

This way, those people who are in prison for a crime but do not have severe mental health issues are not negatively affected by being around those with such problems, while those who do have significant mental health needs are having their needs met. This solution would also lower the rate of incarceration.

Those with mental health needs who are being treated would be less likely to end up back in prison if their mental health is better.

At the same time, those who do not have significant mental health needs will not be as negatively influenced by those who do have mental health issues if they are separated from them, which in turn also decreases their chances of ending up back in prison again later. 

Mental health is a serious issue that causes people to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as committing crimes. But if mental health needs are met, there would be a smaller chance of crime resulting from people with mental health problems.

This is particularly true with people who are already incarcerated for crimes. With rising rates of incarceration, addressing the mental health of those in prison can be one of the ways we can reduce crime and decrease incarceration rates.

The release of prisoners in California and other states during COVID-19 highlights how important it is for us to have such mental health services strongly in place so that when inmates do rejoin society, they can do so in a more positive and healthy way.