A new Justice Department study concludes that the nation's prisons are populated with huge numbers of inmates — more than 50 percent overall — who suffer from mental problems including mania, major depression and psychotic disorders.
Researchers working for the Bureau of Justice Statistics interviewed more than 25,000 inmates in prisons and jails in 2004 and 2002. They returned with staggering estimates: 705,600 state inmates, 70,200 federal prisoners and some 479,900 local inmates report a recent history or symptoms of mental problems.
Behind the numbers, the statisticians paint a grim and more complex picture of prisoners plagued by mental disorders. More than three-quarters of state inmates had substance abuse problems and were twice as likely to be homeless in the last year than others — and for those in jail, one-fourth had been physically or sexually abused. Female inmates in state prisons had the highest mental illness rates of all — 73 percent.
"Those of us who deal in corrections encounter thousands of offenders with mental health problems who are clearly in need of services and aren't getting them," says Leonard Sipes, the spokesman for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, which on any given day has 800 former inmates in a mental health treatment program.
"Many former inmates are not only angry, they also have a hair trigger for violence and often end up back in prison," according to Sipes, who adds that the national recidivism rate still hovers at about 66 percent." The latest study also bears that out: Nearly one-quarter of both state prisoners and jail inmates with mental problems have been behind bars at least three times before.