Life Is Hard For The 1.3 Million Mental Patients Behind Bars In The US

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Photo: YouTube

There are 1.25 million mentally ill inmates in the U.S. justice system, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s compared to only 40,000 in mental hospitals. “This is a huge problem with an unequipped system serving everyone from the mildly ill to the psychotic,” Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch, told us. “The justice system today is functioning as a mental health facility.”

The rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater (56.2 per cent) than in the general adult population (11 per cent), according to Human Rights Watch.

The prisoners are overmedicated and denied access to therapy. Because they often don’t vote or have money, politicians rarely take up their cause.

The Al Jazeera show “Fault Lines” went behind the scenes to prison mental wards in 2009. They found that mentally ill people are thrown into prison because there’s nowhere else to put them. Once there, they face a living hell of violence and confinement. We’ve highlighted some poignant moments.

Since the 1970's, most mental hospitals have been shut down and the prisoners let out. Today, they're often abandoned, as seen here.

The show profiled a prison compound in Houston, which has among the most mental patients of any correctional facility in the U.S. Patients are rarely allowed to socialize, as seen here, because they're a danger to themselves and others.

About half of prison populations have some kind of mental illness, and the prison atmosphere, full of isolation and violence, often makes their symptoms worse.

1.3 million mentally ill people live in jails, compared with 40,000 in hospitals. In jail, they're often heavily dosed with drugs because the staff is too overworked to help them.

This is a typical prison cell for a mental patient. The sickest prisoners are only allowed out twice a week for 15 minutes to take a shower. Others can work up to social privileges.

This is Shannon, she's in prison for the 26th time on drug charges. She says she was self-medicating for her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and schizophrenia.

This is Charlie, a mentally ill man who was recently convicted on drug charges and sent to prison for 13 years.

Charlie says he only sees a doctor once every six months and they meet over close-circuit TV. There are 2 doctors for 1300 patients at his facility.

This is Andre, who was arrested for assaulting a family member. He doesn't remember the event. It's his 31st time in prison.

Andre doesn't remember the event he was arrested for. He has mental retardation and schizophrenia. He doesn't understand the charges being brought against him.

Local officers have started a conflict intermediation program, where they're trained to work with mentally ill people. Here, an officer diffuses a situation before anyone gets hurt.

The conflict intermediation officers lead a man who was wandering in traffic to a public hospital. But if the hospital is too full, he'll probably end up back in jail.

One in every two inmates suffers from a severe psychiatric illness. The people who work in prisons say they're not equipped to treat them.

The loud chaos in prisons can further upset people with mental diseases, causing them to pull their hair out, throw feces, or strike others, the staff say.

President Obama's healthcare reform plan barely addresses mental patients. Experts say this is because these people rarely vote and don't have enough money to wield influence in politics.

You've seen mental patients in prisons...

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