Effective Ways to Implement Mental Health Services in Prisons

October 15, 2017

U.S courts have declared that incarcerated persons have a constitutional right to receive medical and mental health treatments that meet minimum standards (Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980)). That being said, incarcerated persons are often perceived by some as less deserving of adequate health care given the fact that they have been convicted of crimes. This interferes with the effective implementation of mental health services in prisons.

Instituting sufficient mental health services fosters a better quality of life for both incarcerated persons with mental disorders and the rest of the prison population. Additionally, addressing mental health problems amongst incarcerated persons improves their ability to adjust to community life upon leaving incarceration. In turn, it will reduce the probability that they will be convicted again. While this is a pressing topic, it can be addressed with these strategies to better enact mental health services within the legal system.


Diversionary measures towards the mental health system

The imprisonment of people with mental disorders due to lack of public mental health service alternatives is all too common, and steps should be taken to avoid imprisonment in lieu of treatment. Prisons emphasize punishment and determent for crimes, and they are not the place for people with mental health issues who need treatment. Fortunately, there has been a rise in the use of diversion programs, such as mental health courts, throughout the country. These specific courts work in collaboration with mental health care providers to help individuals in the criminal justice system get the help they need. Legislation can also be created that allows transfers to psychiatric facilities at any stage of criminal proceedings.


Adoption of mental health legislation that protect human rights

All incarcerated persons have the right to be treated with respect as human beings, including those with mental disorders. In turn, the conditions in our prisons must reflect that. Mental health legislation can prove powerful help in protecting the rights of incarcerated persons with mental disorders. That being said, mental health laws are often outdated, failing to address appropriate needs of the prison population. There need to be laws that protect the rights of incarcerated persons to receive quality treatment, education on the nature of mental health issues, livable conditions that promote mental health, as well as other crucial liberties that promote humane care. This can be sustained with mental health visiting boards that conduct inspections and monitor conditions of prisons and mental health facilities where incarcerated persons are located.


Access to acute care in psychiatric wards of general hospitals

If incarcerated persons require acute care, there should be procedures in place to temporarily transfer them to psychiatric wards of general hospitals with suitable security levels. In New York, for example, several state prisons offer high-level mental health care right within the prisons themselves though services provided by the NYS Office of Mental Health (“OMH”).


Availability of counseling and prescribed psychotropic medication

Incarcerated persons with mental health issues should have the same access to care, just as people in the general community. Proper counseling and prescriptions of psychotropic medication can be achieved through the work of well-trained health care providers and high-quality prison management.


Continuity of care

When people go to prison, their access to treatment often changes due to loss of services and insurance benefits. Conversely, convicted individuals who begin receiving services while incarcerated often lose access when they are released. In this case, it is particularly dangerous because people then lose access to their prescribed medications upon their release from incarceration, which is often a particularly vulnerable period of time for individuals re-entering the community. Therefore, preventing this from happening prevents individuals from returning to prison. For this reason, it is important to create systems that support people who are transitioning in and out of incarceration.