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Prison Is No Place To Put The Mentally Ill


October 29, 2007

The recent controversy surrounding prison overcrowding in Connecticut has placed a spotlight on conditions for those with serious mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. All too often, people diagnosed with serious mental illnesses in prison have committed misdemeanors or nonviolent, low-level crimes because they have been forced to live on the streets because of the lack of supportive housing and treatment.

Many responsible citizens share the concern that there are not sufficient resources or treatment options to accommodate this population.

They are absolutely right - but the proper accommodation for those who have committed minor offenses because of their serious mental illnesses is not jail or prison - it's community-based mental health treatment and housing options. In 1999, an editorial in The Hartford Courant accurately said, "Psychiatric hospitals have been shut down, but care on the community level has not measured up to promises." Now, in 2007, the state still relies on even more inappropriate institutional care and grossly lacks adequate funding for community services for people with mental illnesses.

When it comes to mental illness, the thing that the public needs to grasp above all else is that it is treatable. Treatment, not imprisonment, is the way to address those who are sick.

Of course the prison system provides some medical treatment. But the right place to provide treatment for mental illness is in a recovery-oriented mental health service system. Yet only 50 percent of defendants with serious mental illnesses who are identified and evaluated can be diverted from jail - largely because the judge does not have any alternative.

Still, state policy-makers are currently contemplating the development of a $150 million "mental/medical" prison facility that will cost an additional $125 million to sustain annually. We could spend millions less and be more effective by serving people in the community with proven, fiscally sound solutions such as supportive housing. This is not just a social imperative - it's a sound investment in the productivity and the well-being of our state.

Making this happen will require policy-makers to address the state's basic and fundamental responsibility for adequate treatment and housing, and to not equate serious criminals of all types with severe mental illnesses.

If the state would separate these issues, it would be able to deal humanely with people who are sick and not criminals. It would also relieve pressure on the prisons and jails and allow corrections officials to focus their resources and attention on the people who are criminals, rather than trying to "treat" people who are not.

Allan Atherton is president of NAMI Connecticut, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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