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Ten times more individuals with serious mental illness are residing in state prisons and county jails today than in the nation’s remaining state mental hospitals, according to a new study from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association.

“The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey” found that, in 44 states, the largest institution housing people with severe psychiatric disease is a prison or jail. Nationwide, the study reports an estimated 356,000 mentally ill inmates compared with 35,000 public hospital patients.

The survey provides state-by-state illustrations of how protocols for treating mentally ill inmates who are deteriorating or acutely ill create obstacles that leave inmates without treatment for extended periods or indefinitely, especially in county jails.

The consequences of failing to treat mentally ill inmates are “usually harmful and sometimes tragic,” according to the report, which represents the first compilation of state laws and practices governing such treatment. Without intervention, symptoms worsen, leading inmates to behave in disruptive and bizarre ways and become vulnerable to being beaten, raped or otherwise victimized, mutilating themselves or committing suicide, the study found. Inmates whose symptoms are uncontrolled also are more likely to be confined in isolation or placed in restraints and, as a group, contribute to the overcrowding of prisons and jails and the increased cost of corrections for both states and counties.

“The lack of treatment for seriously ill inmates is inhumane and should not be allowed in a civilized society,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and lead author of the study. “This is especially true for individuals who – because of their mental illness – are not aware they are sick and therefore refuse medication.” 

Read the executive summary of “The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey" and the full report on the website.

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