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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The New Asylums

The documentary “The New Asylums” really was one of the biggest eye openers I’ve had in a long time.  I have always thought of crime as black or white, you either do it or you don’t.  This is a huge wake up call, which introduced me to all types of shades of gray.  Which got me thinking of another aspect of our criminal justice system.  Is it ok to use capital punishment on an individual who is proven to not have known what he was doing while he did it?  One who thought he was severely threatened as he killed someone he honestly thought would kill him?  Is it fair to the victims of the crime to give these criminals special treatment?  Although not long ago I would have said, “Strap them in the chair,” I just don’t know anymore.  The more I ponder it, the more I don’t know what the answer is.                
According to current statistics by the National Alliance of Mental Illness, or NAMI, around 20%-24% or one in four Americans currently struggle with some form of seriously mentally illness and the Department of Justice states that upwards of 64% of inmates have some mental health issues.  Sadly, as shown in the PBS documentary “The New Asylums” most prisons in our nation just aren't well equipped to deal with the most serious cases of mental illness, and those who somewhat are just don’t have the resources or support to care for these individuals long term.   Most of these severely ill prisoners are isolated for months at a time, which most of the time makes their illness manifest to an even greater scale until they receive the medications they need and are regulated to the point of being able to coexist with the rest of the prison population.  Isolation for long periods of time is not a valid method of treatment for the severely mentally ill.

During the 50’s and 60’s as medications were starting to be discovered as a treatment option to control mental illness “Insane Asylums’ slowly started to close down, with a huge increase in closures of state run facilities in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  These closures never took into consideration where mentally ill people who committed a crime would be kept in order to get their malady under control.  

I’m not saying that violent criminals, who for example murdered someone and are mentally ill should be given special treatment, nor a pass, they shouldn’t.  But they should be put in a place where they can pay their debt to society where they themselves can be rehabilitated and helped with their own illness so that once they get out the same, or worse, doesn’t happen again.  

In Estelle vs. Gamble (1976), the Supreme Court  determined that the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution requires prison officials to provide a system of ready access to adequate medical care, including mental health care.   But is this enough?   Like the PBS Frontline documentary “The New Asylums” shows us, in the Ohio prison system inmates get help when they are in there, although it’s not really done in the optimal way and it doesn’t provide lasting wellness.

Biggest issue with this is that prisons have turned into a type of “Business,” with a huge DC lobby to support it, as stated in the 2015 Washington Post article by Michael Cohen. and a very lucrative one too.  If we were to start funding prisons for the mentally ill alone then they might not be as profitable to the powers that be since around 20% would have to be housed there with doctors, equipment and specialists who would require a much higher price tag.  The way money trickles down wouldn’t make it an easy feat neither.  There are many limitations and priorities, mental health has never been a priority to our government, and I very much doubt that will change anytime soon.   In today’s modern society where there is money for our government to throw away at break-neck pace thanks to the national debt there is no excuse for for this.

Now, how would I go about fixing these issues?  Honestly I don’t have a clear solution.  I don’t think there is an  answer to this at this point in time.  This has become one of society’s toughest struggles, at least for most of my lifetime.

One solution that comes to mind might be to set up two different prison systems.  One for regular inmates, and one for inmates who are struggling with a mental illness.  Same in every way but different in how they are equipped and their staff is trained to handle cases of extreme mental illness.  This would also require a restructuring of the prison system, which I believe the majority of society wouldn’t agree to.  It would require more expenditure to set up and keep running, but what we could get out of it would end up saving us money in the long run by eliminating a huge number of repeat offenders.  I doubt it would be a sellable alternative to the public at large.

After mentally ill inmates serve their time we would have to set up a continuation program, which would set up a completely new government bureaucracy where they keep getting support when they are in the real world.  At least give them support until they can get back on their feet and provide their own support.

The biggest tragedy in all this is that most inmates become estranged from their families and friends while in prison for long periods of time, people just move on while for the inmate time stands still.  There isn’t much hope these people will ever recover and they are almost certain to commit another  crime so they can go back to jail so they can get well again.

It’s a vicious circle, one that I just am not sure can be broken given our societal beliefs and stigmas.

~Al Waisman