The US has the largest prison population in the world. More than one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. In fact, the US is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s incarcerated peoples, despite accounting for just 5 percent of the overall global population. Mass incarceration is a system defined by comparatively and historically extreme rates of imprisonment among young, African American men.
Three brute facts stand out and give a measure of disproportionate impact of incarceration of African Americans. First, the ethnic composition of the inmate population of the United States has been virtually inverted in the last half-century, going from about 70% White at the mid-century point to less than 30% today. Second, the White-Black incarceration gap has grown rapidly, jumping from one white inmate for every 5 black inmates in 1985 to about one white inmate for every 8 black inmates today. Thirdly, the lifelong cumulative probability of serving time in a state or federal penitentiary based on the imprisonment rates of the early 90s is 40% for Whites, 16 percent for Latinos, and 29% for Blacks.
What isn’t talked about is the connection between health care – particularly mental health care and prisons.
In the summer of 2014 James Kilgore, research scholar at the center for African Studies at the University of Illinois published Repackaging Mass Incarceration and in it, details the ways in which mass incarceration is being transformed under different names and assuming multiple forms. He says, “Carceral humanism recasts the jailers as caring social service providers. The cutting edge of carceral humanism is the field of mental health.” What does that look like in practice? Well, according to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, in 2012 the US had over 350,000 people with serious mental health issues in prisons and jails as compared to just 35,000 in the remaining state mental health facilities. “Prisons have become the new asylums and the jailers are waking up to the fact that mental health facilities also represent a new cash cow, says Kilgore.”
Mental Health and Incarceration In Connecticut
The reality that exists is that populations dealing with mental health illness are faced with a lot of challenges such as homelessness, loss of medicaid benefits, co-occurring disorders, and stigma. The criminalization of mental illness must be addressed in a way that does not leave prisons as last resort healthcare providers. Today, the United States faces a crisis in that prisons are among the largest mental healthcare providers. The good news is that there is much work being done in our state to combat this.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Connecticut (NAMI Connecticut), for example, is actively involved in criminal justice issues that affect those with mental illness. In Connecticut, approximately 16% of our prison population consists of persons with mental illness. NAMI Connecticut works closely with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and their Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). CIT is a police based first responder program for those in a mental illness crisis. CIT also works in partnership with those in mental health care to provide a system of services that is friendly to the individuals with mental illness, family members, and the police officers. There is much being done in order to combat this repackaging of mass incarceration. Not only are we a part of the larger racial justice movement, with the combined work of organizations like NAMI Connecticut and many others, CT is in the position to be a leader of that movement.