Horrific deaths, brutal treatment: Mental illness in America's jails
The Virginian-Pilot by Gary Harki
August 23 (27), 2019
How America’s jails came to warehouse the people with mental illness is no secret.
Deinstitutionalization, the release of patients from large institutions, began when Thorazine started being widely used in the 1950s. The medication was the first effective antipsychotic drug, calming and sedating people with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses.
By then, the horrific conditions inside America’s mental hospitals were well-known.
“It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world,” Nellie Bly wrote in “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” her 1887 book on Blackwell's Island Asylum in New York, America’s first municipal mental hospital.
Since the start of deinstitutionalization, jail populations have increased exponentially. In 1950, American jails held about 86,500 people. By 1983 there were more than 223,500 inmates. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, the Bureau of Justice Statistics counted more than 740,700, slightly down from the peak of 785,500 in 2008.
The bureau estimates that 44 percent of jail inmates have been told by a mental health professional that they have a mental disorder. More than a quarter of the jail population – roughly 186,000 people – are believed to be in serious psychological distress.
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