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Legal Options for Inmates with Mental Illness

Incarceration can be hard for anyone, and for those suffering from mental illness, prison can be a nightmare. As public funding for mental health plummets and prison populations soar, the prospects for mentally ill inmates may only get worse.

While this situation may seem dire, there can be options available for inmates who seek mental health treatment while incarcerated.

Inmates and Mental Illness

As state-funded mental health institutions began "deinstitutionalizing" patients in the 1960s, and those patients lacked access to mental health services, mentally ill people were instead funneled into the criminal justice system.

A 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that 64% of local jail inmates, 56% of state prison inmates, and 45% of federal prison inmates suffer from a mental health problem specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (This is compared to around 7% of the rest of the population who suffer from serious mental illness.)

With around 2 million Americans incarcerated in federal and state prisons and county jails, providing mental health services to half the prison population can be difficult, if not impossible. Sadly, as the Huffington Post points out, "many prisons [use solitary confinement] as way to keep mentally ill prisoners away from the general prison population while imposing the worst punishment a manic-depressive or schizophrenic person could endure."

Mental Health Care Behind Bars

But there may be mental health services available, at least to some prisoners. The Federal Bureau of Prisons "provides a full range of mental health treatment through staff psychologists and psychiatrists.The Bureau also provides forensic services to the courts, including a range of evaluative mental health studies outlined in Federal statutes."

While these services may only be available to federal inmates, the National Institute of Corrections has also created a framework "designed for state and local correctional administrators (institutional, probation, and parole) and community-based mental health and substance abuse agency leaders to plan and develop service responses that make efficient use of resources."

Prisons and jails are not ideal places to seek mental health services, but inmates suffering from mental illness (and their family, friends, and attorneys) should research any possible access to treatment. Although prison is never a pleasant place and is often dangerous, you still have legal rights as an inmate. If you or someone you know requires mental health treatment while incarcerated, you may want to talk to an experienced criminal law attorney near you.

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