Correcting Behavior, Causing Trama

Mental illness is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the criminal justice system, particularly as it pertains to the corrections facilities many mentally ill people find themselves in. Due to the deinstitutionalization movement, many mentally ill individuals “are now living in the community and lack the kind of support services and job opportunities they need to stay out of trouble” (Kupers, 1999, p. 13). This leads to them becoming involved in the corrections system. Once they enter the system, many mentally ill inmates suffer greatly due to the conditions that prisons facilitate. Inmates may find themselves feeling stigmatized for becoming incarcerated, feeling afraid for their future, and feeling ignored by corrections staff (Kupers, 1999; Hayes, 2010). These factors work to make the symptoms of mental illness worse and can lead to significant trauma among mentally ill inmates, even leading some inmates to have mental breakdowns (Kupers, 1999). Additionally, the lack of awareness among correctional staff of the different types of mental illness and their presenting symptoms can lead to issues later on. For example, some inmates with mental illness may have a hard time understanding and complying with correctional officers’ orders and might be punished for it (Kupers, 1999). These officer-inmate interactions can even become deadly (Kupers, 1999). 

Because of these factors and adverse conditions, “suicide continues to be a leading cause of death in jails across the country,” according to a study conducted by the Hayes with the National Institute of Corrections (2010, p. 1). Most citizens of the United States approach incarceration with an “out of sight, out of mind” mindset, but inmates are still people and are worthy of proper care and respect. As such, it’s increasingly important that steps be taken to prevent this high number of suicides in the corrections system. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (2011) identifies the training of correctional staff to recognize the warning signs of suicide to be a point of improvement. Other places to improve include 1) initial screenings of inmates for suicidal ideation, 2) implementation of suicide-resistant housing cells and infrastructure, 3) comprehensive observation and treatment plans, and 4) increased lines of communication between inmates, care teams, and correctional staff (Hayes, 2010). 

These are all great steps to take, but I believe that we need to address the underlying conditions of prison culture and our society as a whole. Educating correctional staff on the different types of mental illness and their symptoms could work to decrease stigma and lead to better staff-inmate interactions. Additionally, it may be more helpful to implement policies that would prevent mentally ill people from ending up incarcerated solely because of the symptoms they present. As mentioned before, many of these inmates were people who would have been in a mental facility prior to the deinstitutionalization movement. More focus on increasing access to mental health support and services would be beneficial and may lessen the burden on the corrections and legal systems. If this is truly a mental health issue, we need to be treating it as such.


Hayes, L. (2010). National Study of Jail Suicide, 20 Years Later. National Institute of Corrections. 

Kupers, T. (1999). The mentally ill behind bars. In Prison madness: The mental health crisis behind bars and what we must do about it. Jossey-Bass, Inc. 

Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2011). The role of corrections professionals in preventing suicide. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

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One comment

  1. Excellent post, Zea! Thank you for proposing this solution. I also wrote about funding and supporting mental health hospitals. I believe some of these same issues have been increasingly getting worse in my state (CA) because of our incarceration problem. De-criminalizing mental illness should be a higher priority than it is now. I also applaud your mention of helping educate and train correctional staff accordingly. Great post!

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