How Mental Health impacts Prison Inmates

America touts one of the largest prison populations in the world, but the people behind bars are commonly excluded from public data regarding mental health statistics. In the general public, about 1 in 5 Americans struggle with mental health. Within the inmate population, that rate is 2 in 5, not including unreported cases, which would likely increase this total significantly. Although the mass incarceration levels don’t seem to be letting up, there is still very little talk about the essential healthcare needs of people who are doing time and how improving those conditions could reduce recidivism rates.


Some thought-provoking statistics:

Despite suffering from poor mental health at twice the rate of the general adult population, about 63% of inmates receive no care or treatment while incarcerated.

Due to a lack of funding, about 50% of inmates prescribed medications for mental health are forced to stop taking them once they are behind bars. Many inmates extend their stay due to behavioral issues and end up in solitary confinement, which can worsen matters.

The rate of mental illness in prison inmates hovers at about 37%. In comparison, jail inmates have a rate of 44%, with a third being previously diagnosed with major depressive disorder and a fourth with bipolar disorder.


Possible Solutions for Improvement and Prison Reform

Large-scale movements that urge governmental institutions to change the way they function are well-meaning but often fall on deaf ears or are never implemented. There are, however, small-scale ideas that can be incorporated into the corrections system that could improve the lives of inmates, officers, and the general public.


Focus on rehabilitation: Locking someone away for many years without formal psychotherapy or mental wellness oversight is unlikely to benefit anyone. Understanding that many incarcerated people are products of their environments means shining light on their criminality as a response to trauma, addiction, and psychological experiences. Though there are programs offered in some facilities, they are still not being fully utilized. Meanwhile, violent prison culture continues to grow stronger, involving drugs, gang activity, and many more harmful aspects that only cause more harm to inmates.


Reducing substance misuse: Illicit substances regularly find their way into the highest maximum security prisons in America, and drug use among inmates is rampant. Many prisoners were already battling addiction before they were incarcerated, and their untreated substance use disorder likely had something to do with their time behind bars. Offering effective addiction programs like medication-assisted treatment in combination with substance use counseling is a small yet proven way to minimize the revolving door that keeps inmates coming back, as well as drug use while serving time.


Seeing prisoners as people: Without ignoring the heinous acts of violent criminals that should be kept away from society, many non-violent criminals serve incredibly long sentences due to repeat drug offenses. Giving prisoners a chance to participate in drug forgiveness programs that allow them to go through treatment courses and education to reduce their sentences could be a way to lower prison population numbers while providing essential healthcare and an opportunity for a new lease on life.


RSONM offers addiction treatment services at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center to help increase the possibility of rehabilitation among inmates with substance use disorder. To learn more about the effectiveness of these programs, message or call a local RSONM facility or read more here.