By: Jean Vozella
Ever since deinstitutionalization in the 1970s, there has been an increased rate in the arrest and incarceration of people with mental health conditions. Deinstitutionalization, the process of replacing long-stay psychiatric hospitals with community mental health services for those with mental health issues, began in 1963 when John F. Kennedy passed the Community Mental Health Act. This act created federally funded psychiatric institutions that patients in state facilities could be transferred to. It was meant to reduce the population of mental health institutions as well as reform their treatment processes so that those with mental health-related disabilities would be less dependent on institutional care. It meant the reducing of admissions to mental health facilities and the shortening of patient’s stays. There is debate over the effectiveness of this process as being less isolated has benefited many individuals with mental health conditions; however, it has left many others homeless, unemployed, or incarcerated.
A study of the incarcerated population of several European countries in 1939 led to the theory that the number of people in jails and the number of people in mental facilities was inversely related. This theory, later coined “balloon theory,” would be tested in the United States in the 1970s. When deinstitutionalization reduced the number of patients in psychiatric institutions, the incarceration rate of individuals with mental health conditions began to increase.
Today, about 10 to 15% of inmates in state prisons have a mental health condition or a severe mental health-related disability. Many of these inmates have prior arrest records or had previously been institutionalized in a mental facility. It is difficult for these individuals to get the help they need in state prisons, and once they are released they have no home or family to return to. Without proper treatment and a strong support system, inmates with mental health-related disabilities are highly likely to be rearrested once they are released, creating a hopeless and dangerous cycle.
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