Correctional system fails those with mental health and substance abuse disorders

There are 1,943 state and federal prisons in the United States, according to Comparatively, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors reported only 207 state-operated psychiatric facilities in the country.

This large gap in governmental support for those with psychiatric disorders has caused a major problem for the correctional system. The system has become a ‘dumping ground’ for the overflow of people who should be placed in psychiatric care facilities. There has been overcrowding in the past few decades with the Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting 1.4 million inmates in the state and federal system in 2019.

The major argument against a change to more mental health facilities is often the cost of care. These patients need more supervision, treatment and rehabilitation. However, the Equal Justice Initiative reported that the annual cost of mass incarceration is about $182 billion. This money mostly comes from taxpayers. It should not be the average citizen, but the federal government that should be taking much more responsibility for the cost of mental health facilities. If taxpayers can contribute $182 billion to prisons, why can’t the government fund more in-patient and out-patient psychiatric hospitals?

Prison may be expensive for taxpayers, but for the prisoners it is largely free. This is another major reason why so many people go straight to prison when they should be in a treatment facility for existing mental health conditions. Hospitalization is a critical component of treatment. It also provides a safer place for those who need rehabilitation more than they need punishment. This is why the cost of mental health treatment should not be nearly as high as it is. The average daily cost of an in-patient stay at a facility is $1,400, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. With the average stay being up to ten days, it could cost someone $14,000 to receive the help they need. Many of them don’t have health insurance so they would rather sit in a concrete cell for free, potentially for the rest of their lives.

This is not just a crisis for inmates with mental health and psychiartric disorders. Many families who take care of those struggling with addiction also find their loved ones in prison. Unfortunately, this is not the safest place for people who are withdrawing from drugs. Correctional corruption and gang violence in prisons makes drug use as rampant behind bars as it is on the streets.

As a country, we are failing our prisoners. Many of them need more attention and rehabilitation than they can get within the walls of a correctional facility, but the cost of treatment is so high they can’t afford it. We need to drastically decrease the amount of money that goes to prisons and put that money toward actually keeping Americans safe. Having high incarceration and recidivism rates does nothing to ensure safety for the country. What it does do is burn holes in the pockets of taxpayers. If the money is going to go anywhere, it should go to psychiatric treatment centers. This will keep the country much safer. It will help rehabilitate patients instead of punishing them for chemical components in their brain that they cannot not control.


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