How much are guards doing for the well-being of men and women behind bars? Brittni Brown examines the statistics.
Even if you don’t keep up with the latest in entertainment, chances are you have heard something about the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. In case it doesn’t ring a bell, Orange is the New Black follows the story of an affluent white woman who goes to a minimum security prison for crimes she committed as a young adult. The comedy-drama has captured audiences with its well-written storyline and powerful descriptions of life behind bars.
One of the many topics it has brought to mainstream media attention is the sheer number of mental health illnesses present in prisons and the relative unavailability of treatment for those dealing with these serious health conditions.
In fact, over half of all inmates in state prisons and jails are thought to have some sort of mental health issue. Federal prisons have fallen just under the 50 percent mark with roughly 45 percent of those inmates having had some sort of mental health problem during their lifetime. These statistics suggest that the larger issue in our society is not that there are too many cold-hearted criminals lurking the streets, but rather that we have done a poor job of discovering signs of mental instability and successfully treating them.
Although women seem to be more likely to have mental health issues behind bars, men’s prisons appear to struggle more with addressing the mental health needs of their inmates. The reasons for this are somewhat unclear but may lie with the idea that men are less likely to admit to mental health concerns and more likely to refuse treatment. Since more men are sent the prison than women for similar crimes, male prisons are more likely to have fewer resources available per inmate.
A number of studies examining the state of mental health in prisons have uncovered some far more unnerving facts. For instance, mentally ill prisoners are disproportionately abused, beaten and raped by fellow inmates. A 2007 study found that over a six month period, one in twelve inmates with mental health conditions were sexually victimized. This statistic is compared to one in 33 prisoners without a mental disorder.
Additionally, many prisons tend to punish mentally unstable inmates more harshly than those that are not mentally ill. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, for example, found that their prisoners with serious mental illnesses were twice as likely to be placed in solitary confinement. Ultimately, this led to major changes (including bans on solitary for mentally ill inmates) in the state, but plenty of issues still abound.
This is a profound need for additional trained professionals.
Even within Orange is the New Black, viewers can see a stark inability of the guards to handle problems related to mental health conditions of the inmates. There are certainly plenty of examples in which the series inaccurately describes how guards behave in correctional facilities, but this issue may not be one of them. The fact of the matter is that the majority of prison guards have little to no training at all in addressing the multitude of mental health conditions their prisoners face.
To become a prison guard or police officer is a relatively simple process, often times there is an age, citizenship, and education requirement but this depends heavily upon the state and type of correctional facility. For instance, federal prisons typically require a Bachelor’s degree and some previous experience whereas some jails only require a high school diploma. The training process is usually highly focused upon policy and procedure, and generally doesn’t include much in the way of mental health training.
This is in no way the fault of the men and women that have chosen this career path, rather a flaw within the system itself. Because of this though, only about one in six inmates receives any sort of mental health care at all. Direct treatment of specific problems is far more difficult to come by.
Some facilities are attempting to take steps to more thoroughly address these conditions from within. Certain prisons have developed mental health wards where inmates identified as mentally ill are placed. The goal is to increase the amount of attention and treatment available, after all, mental health must be considered first in any rehabilitation program.
Fortunately, some courts are even becoming more proactive about recognizing and addressing mental health cases before the accused are sent to prison. Mental health courts have cropped up in many states as an alternative to prison time and have been met with some success. Here, individuals are assigned to treatment programs and monitored. Non-compliance, however, is still frequently met with jail-time.
One example is the San Antonio police department, which has begun to enable officers to handle mental health crises by giving them a crisis intervention training. These officers use their skills to talk down people in crisis, which has resulted in far more of them exchanging prisons for treatment centers. This has also saved the local government upwards of $50 million over the last 5 years and greatly reduced the amount of force used.
Entertainment programs such as Orange is the New Black have the unique ability to draw the attention of the general public to major social issues that are routinely ignored. The show has already done an amazing job at spotlighting our nation’s inadequate programs for incarcerated mental health treatment and a lack of trained professionals to address the issue. However, it does not have the ability to demand changes; that remains our responsibility.
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