How Serious Are Prisoners’ Self-Reported Mental Problems?


An advocacy group is questioning the conclusion of the new U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study, reported yesterday by Crime & Justice News, that more than half of U.S. prison and jail inmates have mental health problems. The Arlington, Va.-based Treatment Advocacy Center points out that the data are based on prisoners’ self-reports of items like “feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt,” “increased/decreased interest in sexual activities,” or “thoughts of revenge.”The surveys did not assess the severity or duration of the symptoms and did not exclude “symptoms” due to medical illness, bereavement, or substance abuse, the center says, charging that the survey “trivializes severe mental illnesses.” The center contends that those with severe and persistent mental illnesses should not be lumped together with others who reports “persistent anger or irritability.” Only about 10 percent of inmates said they had been diagnosed with a disorder by a mental health professional.

Others note that whatever the true rate of inmate mental illness, more treatment is needed. The co-chair of the Council of State Governmetns’ Public Safety and Justice Task Force, New York State Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, cited the 8,000 people on the active mental health caseload in his state’s prisons. “This isn’t good for public safety, it’s not good for the health of our communities, and it’s not a good use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. State leaders called for more funding of the federal Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004. Although authorized to spend $50 million each year, Congress has made available only $5 million, a small sum by Washington standards.


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