Professional News
How to Help Mentally Ill Prisoners
Psychiatric News
Volume 38 Number 23 page 5-5

Human Rights Watch recently issued the report "Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders With Mental Illness," which describes the problems faced by prisoners with mental illness and their causes (see story above).

Following are the report’s key recommendations:

Enact the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act. The bill authorizes grants to help communities establish diversion programs (prebooking, jail diversion, mental health courts) for offenders with mental illness, treatment programs for those in jail or prison, and discharge programs to help them receive mental health services upon release. The bill was passed by the U.S. Senate a week after the release of the Human Rights Watch report and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Improve access to public benefits covering all mental health services. Current law leads to long delays in the restoration of benefits, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, after offenders are released from prison.

Amend or repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The act "severely hinders prisoners in their efforts to remedy unconstitutional conditions in state correctional facilities."

Reduce the rate of incarceration of persons with mental illness. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws should be revised to ensure that prison is reserved for the most serious offenders, and prison sentences are not disproportionately harsh. Mental health courts, prosecutorial pretrial diversion, and other efforts should be supported, which will divert mentally ill offenders from jails and into community-based mental health treatment programs.

Set high standards for prison mental health services. International human rights standards require officials to ensure the highest attainable standard of mental health care.

Establish effective performance reviews using independent experts and comprehensive internal quality-review mechanisms for each prison system and prison.

Provide sufficient numbers of qualified prison mental health care staff and mental health training for correctional staff.

Ensure sufficient specialized facilities for seriously mentally ill prisoners.

Exclude the seriously mentally ill from segregated confinement or "supermax" prisons.

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