The use of psychotropic drugs has gone up by 25 percent in California prisons in the past five years, with the number of inmates accounting for about a fifth of the county’s prison population, stated a recent analysis. According to the researchers from California Health Policy Strategies (CHPS), the increase could be attributed to a larger number of people with mental illnesses being admitted to prisons or better identification of people in need of mental health treatment.
There is a serious dearth of psychiatric beds and community-based treatment options in the state as well as the United States. Under such circumstances, prisons have become a “storehouse” for people grappling with mental illnesses. The number of inmates with mental illnesses in prisons is skyrocketing and the entire justice system is overwhelmed by the soaring numbers, said Michael Romano, director of Three Strikes and Justice Advocacy Project at the Stanford Law School.
Mental illnesses rampant among incarcerated
The analysis was based on the evaluation of data obtained from 45 counties of California. Unfortunately, across the U.S., millions of people grappling with mental disorders are housed in prisons rather than psychiatric wards. This results in insufficient treatment opportunities and care from untrained personnel, leading to inmate suicide, violence, self-mutilation and other problems. Also, people struggling with debilitating mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have limited access to their prescription drugs, adversely affecting their recovery. According to the analysis, nearly 13,776 inmates from the 45 counties were on psychiatric medications in 2016-17, compared to nearly 11,000 in 2011-12.
Citing the example of the Los Angeles county prisons, the analysis stated that 30 percent of the 18,000 inmates lodged there struggled with mental illnesses. According to the prison officials, those diagnosed with mental illnesses were on medications but experts felt that these medications were most likely under-prescribed. “You need enough mental health professionals to treat the very large numbers of mentally ill people in jails,” said Richard Lamb, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California’s School of Medicine.
Medication not enough
While some officials believe that medicines for mental disorders are under-prescribed, others believe that at times, the medicines are wrongly prescribed to sedate and calm the inmates. Zima Creason, president and chief executive officer of Mental Health America (MHA) of California, said that medicines are not substitutes for comprehensive mental health care. She insisted that there is a need for a holistic treatment plan, including group and individual therapy, recreational activities, etc., rather than just throwing a bunch of medicines at inmates with mental illnesses.
Ron Honberg, a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said that prisons have limited resources for mental health treatment. Many a times, these inmates fall prey to addiction and it is during such times that they need drug abuse help from credible and certified drug abuse clinics.
Mental health treatment can help lead better life
Rebecca Cervenak, staff attorney for Disability Rights California, emphasized that a huge investment is warranted to direct the offenders to treatment and not jails. Drug offenses and parole violations are some of the reasons that bring incarceration for mentally ill individuals. Homeless people get convicted for public urination, panhandling and other such crimes. Additionally, inmates with mental illnesses spend a long time in prisons because they have a difficult time following the rules and often find it hard to cope in the congested and chaotic environment.
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