Connecticut Law Review Volume 44 – Issue 5

Prisons: The New Mental Health System

By the middle of the twentieth century, the United States was in crisis: over half a million Americans were in state mental hospitals.  Several changes, including the development of effective anti-psychotic medications and increased funding for the establishment of community mental health centers, made deinstitutionalization—the movement of the mentally ill from state hospitals to community-based programs—possible.  Although a good plan in theory, deinstitutionalization quickly became one of the main reasons for the substantial increase in mentally ill individuals in prisons.  Many of the originally considered community mental health centers were never developed, leaving such individuals with nowhere to turn for treatment.

This Note suggests that it was deinstitutionalization in conjunction with a number of other factors—including changes in civil commitment laws, lack of training for police officers, “mercy bookings,” lack of proper support systems, and societal attitudes—that created the gap that prisons soon came to fill.  This Note discusses how three states, comparable in size and located throughout the United States, have addressed the needs of the mentally ill in their prison systems.  This Note ultimately argues that because of the limited treatment available to the mentally ill, prisons have become the new mental health system.  Likewise, despite the successes seen in some states, there is still work to be done.  Finally, it proposes solutions for remedying this situation and reducing the number of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system.

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