Prisoners and Mental Illness

Human Rights Watch released a report in October stating that one sixth of prisoners in the United $tates are mentally ill (1). Meanwhile, the Correctional Association of New York put out a very comprehensive report based on in-person research in segregation units throughout New York State which indicates that one fifth of those prisoners are mentally ill (2). Both reports indicate that people who are having trouble dealing with their conditions mentally are most likely to be placed in worse conditions, i.e. long term isolation in Control Unit or Security Housing Units as they are often called.

To find people in U$ prisons who are not having negative mental effects from the conditions that they are in seems a difficult task. The fact that some people react worse than others leaves the term "mental illness" open to interpretation based on the degree of the problems. Human Rights Watch blames the high rates of incarceration of the mentally ill on the lack of resources for people on the outside. Without any help they end up being stuck in prison as a result of their behavior. This assessment seems accurate, however we would not join Human Rights Watch in calling for locking more people into mental institutions instead of prisons. The history of abuse in mental institutions rivals that of prisons. In fact, the use of the two is often split along gender lines, with wimmin ending up in mental institutions more and men being sent to prisons (3).

Both men and wimmin who are being locked away in institutions are products of our society. Both mental illness and petty criminal behavior are common in our society, but rather than looking at the source of these behaviors our society chooses to punish them.

Many people react to this sociological assessment by turning back to the individual and saying that you can't just blame all their problems on society. But we are not arguing that people don't need to take responsibility for their actions because it is society's fault. On the contrary, if you are able to decide that you don't like your behavior and that you think it is a result of the society you grew up in than it is your responsibility to do something to change society. MIM has found that this approach addresses the problem on both the societal and the personal level (3). It is exactly in engaging one's world and struggling to make it better that one finds meaning and identity for oneself.

What are the societal causes of mental illness? One inherent problem in capitalism is the alienation of people from their labor, even people in the United $tates who can make a lot of money spend much of their time following someone else's orders without directly benefiting from the work they are doing. In a society where money is plentiful, consumerism has been encouraged as a way to find self-worth. These economic conditions encourage our individualist lifestyles that lack a sense of community that has kept other societies functioning much better than ours. If we turn back to the prison system we can make the links between material conditions and mental illness even more easily.

The Correctional Association of NY report found that the incidence of suicide and other harmful behaviors was higher in Security Housing Units (SHUs) than in the general (prison) population. "Between 1998 and 2001, over half of the system's 48 suicides occurred in 23-hour lock down, although inmates in these units comprise less than 10% of the general population" (2). The report states that some units function better than others, including the use of "behavior modification." While MIM proposes a prison system based on reform and not punishment we cannot rely on the current state to conduct such "behavior modification" (4). Teaching people to adjust to an oppressive and exploitative system only puts off making a better system, while remaining ineffective in making the majority of individuals happy.

As for the SHU, we stand by our line that you cannot reform torture units (5). One of the Correctional Associations of NY's recommendations in their report is to "institute a suicide prevention program in every 23-hour lock down unit, including keeplock. A properly administered suicide prevention program could mean the difference between life and death for inmates in 23-hour lock down." (2) Their own statistics show that there are higher rates of suicide in these units. Then they talk about how these prisoners in these units are ripe for abuse by guards and administration. So why would we count on them to prevent suicides? Clearly the SHUs and other isolation units need to be abolished as they are cruel and unusual punishment, often for petty misbehavior as both reports point out.

MIM has been building public opinion to shut down isolation units for years and we have recently begun to unite a nationwide movement with our statement against all such units, which can be found online at We encourage those who are concerned about the well-being of the mentally ill in prisons to join us in this campaign.


  1. United States: Mentally Ill Mistreated in Prison, More Mentally Ill in Prison Than in Hospitals. New York, October 22, 2003. Human Rights Watch press release. <>
  2. LOCKDOWN NEW YORK:Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons, October 2003. Correctional Association of New York <>
  3. MIM Theory 9: Psychology and Imperialism
  4. see "An Alternative to the SHU" by MIM
  5. "Torture Can't Be Reformed." MIM Notes 289, 15 October 2003.