It’s no secret that mental illness is at an all time high. It’s not a far guess to assume people who are afflicted with their mental health are more likely to encounter police than get medical attention. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.

“Women in prisons and jails are more likely than men to have a history of mental illness”.

-Prison Policy Initiative

The vast majority of the individuals are not violent criminals who are awaiting trial. The rest are serving short sentences for minor crimes. But once in jail, many individuals never receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better. According to statistics, they actually end up staying longer in prison or jail than those without a mental hinderance.


Life Behind Bars While Having A Mental Disorder

A shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, limited community mental health resources, deficits in housing, and over sentencing guidelines have resulted in the incarceration of close to a half million individuals with serious mental illness. Because prisons are not designed for mental stability, incarcerated individuals rarely get the psychosocial treatments they need. This has unfortunately created a revolving door of repeat offenders that are struggling with an illness while being sentenced like a criminal.

Key Statistics:

  • Percent of people in state and federal prisons who have been diagnosed with a mental illness: 37% +
  • In locally-run jails: 44% +
  • The number of people experiencing “serious psychological distress” in jails: 1 in 4 +
  • Percent of people in federal prisons who reported not receiving any mental health care while incarcerated: 66% +
  • Percent of police shootings in 2015 that involved a mental health crisis: 27% +
  • Portion of people jailed 3+ times within a year who report having a moderate or serious mental illness: 27% +


Life After Jail

After leaving jail, many no longer have access to healthcare and benefits. A criminal record also makes it harder for individuals to get a job or housing. Many, especially those without access to mental health services and supports, end up homeless or in emergency rooms. At least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.

The rate of homelessness for formerly incarcerated people was 203 per 10,000 people. Inmates who are now homeless make up 15.3% of the U.S. jail population, or 7.5 to 11.3 times the standardized estimate of 1.36% to 2.03% in the general U.S. adult population. Mental disorders are found in nearly 42% of that population.

Local and National Prevention

Recognizing this crisis, county sheriffs and correctional administrators have developed new models to treat mentally ill individuals. Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County Jail into an integrated medical and behavioral health system.  Mental health services provided at Cook County Jail begin at intake, with comprehensive screenings and evaluations. Inmates are given an array of treatment services, from group counseling and housing to medication support and management.  In addition to intensive discharge planning and preparation, jail personnel also stay in contact with newly released individuals. They even transport formerly incarcerated individuals to and from doctor appointments.  

There are other efforts around the country that aim to divert mentally ill individuals away from the criminal justice system or transition them as soon as possible to the behavioral health care sector. Mental health courts are also being designed to provide some mentally ill offenders with treatment and support instead of jail time.  Health homes for mentally ill offenders offer alternative settings to jails and prisons, or provide transitional, supportive housing to newly released individuals. 



“Helping people get out of jail and into treatment is a top priority for us. NAMI believes that everyone should have access to a full array of mental health services and supports in their communities to help prevent interactions with police. These supports should include treatment for drug and alcohol use conditions, and supports like housing, education, supported employment and peer and family support.”

The Stepping Up Initiative:

Stepping Up asks communities to come together to develop an action plan that can be used to achieve measurable impact in local criminal justice systems of all sizes across the country.

Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) :

Crisis intervention team (CIT) programs help police recognize a mental health problem and get people to treatment.  They also work on a variety of jail diversion programs, re-entry programs, and provide education and support to individuals and families at risk of involvement it the justice system.