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Why are so many mentally ill people imprisoned in Pennsylvania?

from article in Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, August 2, 2015

Lynn Keltz, executive director of Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers' Association, a group that represents people with mental illnesses, is deeply skeptical.

Keltz, an ardent supporter of the closure of state hospitals, said that even if PennLive's figures on mental illness in the correctional system in 2014 are correct, she believes there's no historical research to prove that they've grown over time.

"I don't think anybody ever did a study 50 years ago, 25 years ago, to determine how many people in prison-type environments had mental-health needs," she said. "So I think it's a little difficult to say now that your numbers are increasing."

Without that evidence, Keltz maintains, it's impossible to say that the closure of state hospitals has led to an increase of seriously mentally ill inmates into the correctional system in Pennsylvania. Read more of Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Lynn Keltz, Executive Director of PMHCA:

In addition to Keltz's comments in the article, she urges us to consider national data on mental health provided by the National Institutes on Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In 2012, there were an estimated 43.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. with a mental illness. This represented 18.6 percent of all U.S. adults or nearly one in four. It is important to remember this when reading articles about the numbers and percentages of incarcerated people with mental illness. It doesn't seem surprising that about 30% of inmates have an MI when 20% of the general population have similar rates of a diagnosis.

About 4.1% of Americans in 2012 had a serious mental illness (National Survey on Drug Use and Health), or roughly 9.6 million adults. Not all of these people require restrictive environments such as state hospitals. The vast majority either access community treatment or are able to adjust to life with a mental illness, never getting near the justice system.

Keltz encourages us to ask:

Only as a last resort are people placed in state hospitals.

There is also the question of poverty, race and other disparate treatment within the healthcare and justice systems. The percentages of people with Serious Mental Illness diagnosis (SMI) were higher among those without health insurance, those living in houses with income less than 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and those living in non-metropolitan (rural) areas. Adults with SMI were less likely to receive mental health treatment if they did not have health insurance.

If these problems were addressed, it is likely that fewer people with mental illness would succumb to symptoms and behaviors that land them in jails and prisons. County, state and federal governments need to fund quality services that meet current needs and to educate the public about what is available. It would be more ethical and cheaper and in the long run than letting illness go until it is so severe that criminal acts are committed. The stigma surrounding mental illness must also be more completely addressed in order for people to reach out for help.

PMHCA urges people to look beyond the headlines, to use their lived experience with their own or a friend or family member's mental illness and stop buying into the false cause and effect argument that closure of state hospitals causes an increase in prisoners with mental illness.

We encourage you all to think and then act.