Here are your disturbing prison facts for the day:
Percentage of American adults held in either prison or mental institutions in 1953 and today, respectively: 0.67, 0.68
Percentage of these adults in 1953 who were in mental institutions: 75
Percentage today who are in prisons: 97
That’s from the latest Harper’s magazine. My first reaction to this bit of data was dismay: we’ve turned prisons into insane asylums, and are locking up people who should be treated for mental illness. These statistics make it clear that the boom in the prison industry is fed, in part, by the closing of our mental institutions. (Approximately 16 percent of all prison inmates are believed to have some sort of mental illness, which is three times the rate of the overall population.) And that’s tragic: schizophrenics and other mentally ill patients need treatment, not just punishment. If you suffer from a mental illness, it’s hard to imagine a worse place than prison. (A recent HRW report documented how one bi-polar prisoner was punished after engaging in self-mutilation. His offense? “Destroying state property”.)
But I’m not convinced that these figures are all bad news. It’s crucial to not romanticize the mental institutions of mid-century America. They weren’t exactly enlightened treatment centers. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest contains a germ of truth.) A huge range of patients were committed, from autistic adults to children with down syndrome to people with schizophrenic symptoms. Treatment was confinement. Nobody knew what else to do.
Of course, now we know better. We finally have a few somewhat effective tools to treat mental illness. And yet we are still failing to provide the necessary services, finding it easier to simply confine these poor patients. Although these statistics make it look as if there’s been some big policy shift in the way we treat the mentally ill – they’ve been shifted from sanitariums to prisons – I think the reality is even more depressing. There’s been no shift at all.