New York Times Columnist Writes that Jails Have Become the New Mental Hospitals

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Nicholas Kristof, pulitzer prizewinning columnist for the New York Times
Nicholas Kristof

On February 8th, two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner Nicholas Kristof used his column in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times to publish “Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail.” His column outlines how the “de-institutionalization” of mental illness in America has actually led to patients ending up in jail, with more than 50 percent of prisoners actually having a diagnosable mental illness.

Mr. Kristof’s first column of 2014, on January 4th, was titled “First Up, Mental Illness. Next Topic Is Up to You.” He invited readers to submit their suggestions for issues meriting media coverage that are neglected. He began with his own first choice―mental health―and Sunday’s column was a reflection of that choice.

In regards to jails seconding as mental health hospitals, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation honored a very strong advocate for rectifying this situation with their Productive Lives Award in 2012. The Honorable Judge Steven Leifman, Miami-Dade County Court Criminal Division, has dedicated himself to transforming Florida’s criminal justice and mental health systems and has become a tireless advocate for mental health treatment (rather than incarceration). Watch Judge Leifman’s inspirational acceptance speech from the 2012 Foundation National Awards Dinner.

Read “Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail” from The New York Times.

Article comments

What do you mean jails are the new mental hospital? Jails have been the mental hospital for quite a long time. It should not be treated like a new phenomenon.

Pete Early wrote an incredible book on this topic about 10 years ago.

Yes, Petra is correct. My mentally ill son was in jail for three months when he was 18. He is now 50 and still has a mental illness, so this is nothing new. However, anytime anyone draws attention to this sad situation, it is much appreciated. The more this is brought to light the better. So thank you, Mr. Kristof.

Are these doctors and nurses in jail trained to deal with the mentally ill? If I remember correctly, they are correction officers, which tactical training for shooting and appending subjects. Using holds that break or injure the subject. Is this acceptable? In my observation it is not. Yes mentally ill people are hard to deal with. That is why they are mentally ill. But putting them in jail with criminals, is that an ideal situation? I don't think so. You are adding to the illness. Jail are no place for medically ill people.

Maybe we should provide therapy in jails that can support their mental health so when they get out of jail they can make better choices.

They could do a 60 minutes segment on my son alone. He has been in and out of jails since he was 19 and is now 29. He is currently in Jefferson County Jail in COlorado. They haven't given him his meds and he has been there for 2 weeks!

I will say that law enforcement and courts are getting better, but prisons are not. Jefferson County is going to have a seperate court for mentally ill defendants soon.

I was the Director of a 2,400 nmates detention facility in West Palm Beach until recently. The mentally ill was my interest in taking this position. We have the luxury of an inpatient unit within the jail to observe and manage the mentally ill. The real population housed in the jails are the substance abusers who are told by private practitioners including psychiatrists that they suffer mental illness (the most frequent cause of this problem -MD failed to identify the substance abuse and patient not disclosing it to them). If the substance abusers are treated with psychotropics the risk of incarceration is very high and the most disturbing crimes that I encountered were committed by this particular population. In our attempt to help the substance users with psychiatric medications we are creating a serious problem and not addressing the primary disorder. I joined a Detox/Rehab facility to educate and prevent this epidemic problem in our community.
Yes we have serious deficiencies in the community mental health services and probably another area that is failing us is the limitations of psychotropics to stabilized patients.

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