Severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are brain diseases—biological conditions like heart disease or epilepsy. Yet in the U.S., the institutions most likely to be treating people with these illnesses are not hospitals, but rather jails and prisons, says Mother Jones magazine. The Treatment Advocacy Center says the U.S. has returned to the 18th-century model of incarcerating the mentally ill in correctional institutions rather than treating them in health care facilities like any other sick people. In 2012, there were roughly 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in prisons and jails, while only 35,000 people with the same diseases were in state psychiatric hospitals.
Mentally ill inmates are more likely to become the victims of sexual assault and abuse. They’re overrepresented in solitary confinement and much more likely than other prisoners to commit suicide. Putting the mentally ill in jails instead of hospitals isn’t saving the government money. In Washington state in 2009, the most seriously mentally ill inmates cost more than $100,000 a year to confine, compared with $30,000 for others. One reason for the disparity: mentally ill people tend to stay in jail longer than other prisoners because they aren’t likely to get bail and also because they are often chronic rule-breakers. In Florida’s Orange County jail most inmates stay an average of 26 days, but mentally ill inmates are there for 51 days on average.