Hundreds of inmates in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem suffer from severe cases of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression, but the psychiatric unit has room for only 40, the Oregonian in Portland reports. “You could say it’s our equivalent of a state mental hospital,” said Arthur Tolan of the Department of Corrections’ counseling and treatment services. “Of course, we’re not supposed to be a state hospital. We have a lot of inmates who are in the wrong place.”
The Oregonian says that cuts to community-based programs are transforming the state’s prisons and jails into de facto mental health hospitals; administrators protest that the harsh and often chaotic world behind bars can be the worst place for the mentally ill.
Some 22 percent of Oregon’s 12,200 inmates suffer from serious mental illness; tat’s about 2,700 prisoners, nearly four times the number of patients housed at the state mental hospital. The mentally ill represented about 11 percent of the prison population in 1996.
Prison superintendents say mixing people who are battling serious mental problems with the general inmate population has made managing prisons more difficult and dangerous.
Surrounded by criminal minds, the mentally ill, often referred to as “dings” or “bugs” by other inmates, are more likely to be preyed upon. “An inmate might be standing in line, and someone might call his name,” Tolan said. “But when he turns around, other inmates will say, ‘We didn’t say anything.’ So that person is going to think he is hearing voices again.”
When they can no longer take prison life, the mentally ill often respond by screaming uncontrollably or becoming violent. As a result, they are candidates for solitary confinement at a disproportionate rate. Tthe more mentally ill inmates are segregated from others, “the more they’re bound to listen to the voices in their heads,” Tolan said.
In the 1970s, filmmakers shot the opening scene of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” inside the domed Oregon Department of Corrections administrative building, a few blocks from the penitentiary. The irony isn’t lost on the people who work there now.