How Can the Rights of the Mentally Ill Inmates in the United States be honored?

How Can the Rights of the Mentally Ill Inmates in the United States be honored?


Handling of mental and psychological problems may assist the mentally ill inmates cope with the disorder successfully and other prisoners might benefit from the alleviation of excruciating symptoms, avoid worsening of their challenges, and save them from suicide. Mental health treatment for the prisoners can facilitate independent operation and promote the progress of more efficient internal functions (Forsythe 45-46). The question that this paper seeks to answer is: how can the rights of the mentally ill inmates in the United States be honored? Through assisting individual prisoners regain health and boost coping proficiencies, mental health care ensures safety and order in the prison setting and increases community wellbeing when inmates are finally released. Sadly, prisons in the US and other countries around the world are poorly equipped to respond suitably to the requirements of the mentally ill inmates. Mental health services in the correctional facilities are mainly deplorably substandard and stultified by understaffing, inadequate facilities, and restricted programs. Most of the severely ill inmates obtain minimal or no consequential treatment.

Situation in the Detention Centers

Detention centers were never meant to harbor the mentally ill. However, that has currently turned out to be one of their main functions (Forsythe 34-36). Most of the people who cannot acquire mental health care within the society end up in the criminal justice system after engaging in criminal activities. A wide pool of studies establishes that approximately 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal inmates have signs or a recent account of psychological health disorder. Inmates in the US detention centers have varying levels of psychiatric problems encompassing severe disorders such as major depression (to degrees of twofold to fourfold that of the people in the community). Other problems include bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. Research and clinical encounters constantly demonstrate that 8% to 19% of the inmates have mental illnesses that lead to considerable functional disabilities. Moreover, over 18% of prisoners require some kind of mental health interventions in the course of their imprisonment.

Though there are numerous diligent and dedicated mental health experts operating in the detention centers, they experience overwhelming if not insuperable difficulties to realizing the needs of the mentally ill prisoners (Simmons 83-85). The challenges faced by mental health professionals in detention centers encompass very huge workloads, physically horrible establishments, and organizational cultures that are insensitive of the implication of mental health. Benefits in the recruitment of mental health professionals, designs, and substantial resources, which were realized recently, have since been inundated by the increase in the number of inmates with severe mental disorders. The overworked personnel in the correctional facilities are in most cases unable to act effectively in response to mental health emergencies thus making it hard to enhance the recuperation of many prisoners from severe conditions and development of coping skills. Heedful of budgetary limitations and inadequate public backing for ventures in the correction (instead of punishment) of inmates, the state has been hesitant to offer the finances and leadership necessary to make sure that detention centers have the required mental health supplies. Out of 40 state detention centers, studies establish that 22 lack a sufficient number of psychiatrists. Devoid of the required care, inmates with mental disorders experience agonizing problems and their conditions worsen.

The mentally ill prisoners may suffer illusions and hallucinations, unbearable worries and tremendous mood changes (Simmons 83-84). In most instances, the inmates cower quietly in their cells, maunder incoherently, or shriek ceaselessly. They could as well refuse to comply with the given orders or assault devoid of evident aggravation. In some cases, the mentally ill hit their heads on the walls inside the cells, apply feces all over their bodies, self-mutilate, and attempt suicide. Spending the given term in incarceration is a difficult thing for all inmates. Inmates strive to uphold their self-respect and psychological equilibrium in facilities that are characteristically tense, congested, and with a high possibility of violence. They are separated from their family members and communities and deprived of opportunities for significant education, employment, and other industrious activities. Nevertheless, life in detention centers is mainly hard for the mentally ill inmates, who have impaired thinking, psychological reactions, and capacity to cope. The mentally ill prisoners have a great probability of being exploited or oppressed by other inmates and are less probable of complying with the set directives in the strictly restricted life thus having high chances of breaking the rules, which increases their punishment.

Isolation and Supermax Prisons

If the inmates with mental illnesses are found breaking the rules, the prison officers reprimand them just like the other prisoners (Simmons 86-88). This is done irrespective of whether their behaviors are a reflection of the influence of mental illness. In cases where lesser measures fail to restrain the conduct, the officers isolate the mentally ill inmates from the entire prison population and place them in a supermax prison. In other instances, the mentally ill inmates are placed in segregation units within the ordinary detention centers. The moment they get segregated, persistent misconduct usually results in the mentally ill prisoners remaining isolated for an indefinite period. Studies affirm that most of the inmates isolated in supermaximum security prisons are mentally ill. Prison officers in the US detention centers have progressively upheld lasting isolation to address and discipline inmates who are thought to be dangerous. Supermax prisons also hold the prisoners who appear to be difficult or troubling.

Apart from the supermax prisons, the mentally ill prisoners are also kept in segregation units in some correctional facilities thus forming a contemporary alternative of solitary imprisonment. The inmates are locked up for a minimum of 23 hours in a day in minuscule cells that usually have solid metallic doors. They live under intensive scrutiny and security checks, the lack of normal social interrelations, nonstandard environmental stimulus, and inadequate periods of recreation in caged cells while just alone. In the isolation units and supermax prisons, prisoners obtain minimal, if any, professional, educational, or other beneficial undertakings. They are cuffed or manacled each time they have to be taken out of the cells. The nature and effect of staying in isolation differs with the person, time taken, and the conditions therein (for instance, the availability of natural light or provision of radio). Lengthy detention under poor conditions may be psychologically detrimental to any inmate and not just the mentally ill (Simmons 83-86).

Staying in an isolation unit or supermax prison may elicit fury, depression, nervousness, mental disturbance, perceptual distortions, compulsive thoughts, fear, and psychosis in the inmates. Nevertheless, the risk of harm is considerably severe for inmates who already have mental health problems. The distress and lack of consequential social interrelation, in addition to formless days, may worsen signs of mental health disorders or evoke their reoccurrence (Hopgood 76-78). Cases of suicide happen considerably frequent in isolation units as compared to other sections of detention centers. In other instances, inmates with mental illnesses decompensate in segregation, calling for intensive care or psychiatric treatment. The condition of most of the mentally ill inmates does not improve as long as they remain in isolation. Studies affirm that confining the inmates with mental illness in isolation units is akin to putting asthmatic patients in an area that has little fresh air.

Hopgood discusses a certain inmate who had a record of schizophrenia and had been detained in an isolation unit for more than five years despite frequently mutilating himself through smearing feces (79). Studies also report of inmates in isolation units who cut themselves, eat flesh from their bodies, take part in other conducts in line with suffering from severe and untreated or poorly addressed mental disorders, and in worst occurrences commit suicide. Mental impairment in supermax prisons is intensified by the fact that mental health experts are barred from offering a complete scope of psychiatric services to the inmates. Psychiatric services are characteristically restricted to psychotropic medication, a mental health professional standing at the entrance to a cell in an attempt of establishing the manner in which the inmates are fairing, and infrequent conferences in private with therapists. Group rehabilitation, individual treatment, recreational, or life-proficiency facilitating endeavors, and additional therapeutic interventions are commonly not accessible. The shortage of vital resources by the inmates is at times exacerbated by inadequate supplies and conflicts with directives in the detention centers. For instance, there could be deficient number of custodial personnel to direct inmates out of and into their cells when they are required to meet health professionals and stringent rules that demand inmates to stay in the cells while prohibiting interactions with other convicts.

There has been extensive displeasure of the placement of the mentally ill inmates in isolation units or supermax prisons. In nearly all cases challenging detention and isolation of the mentally ill, complainants have either acquired a court order or settlements barring or highly disapproving such occurrences (Hopgood 76-78). In this regard, in detention centers covered by comparable lawsuits, the mentally ill inmates receive better treatment. In some cases they are allowed enough time outside their cells and enhanced access to psychiatrists. Facilitated medical attention to the mentally ill inmates has been realized devoid of compromising the welfare or security of others. Sadly, apart from the few correctional facilities covered by litigations, inmates with mental illness keep on suffering in isolation or supermax prisons. In fact, the mentally ill prisoners are usually unreasonably represented while in isolation.

Re-Entry Services

There is a growing wakefulness amid public officers regarding the significance of offering effective re-entry programs to inmates leaving detention centers. Valuable re-entry services raise the probability that inmates will successfully return to the society. The mentally ill inmates have varying requirements for discharge and transition back to the society. Moreover, after re-entry, such people require receiving proper mental health care and public help with the purpose of achieving suitable employment, wages, and housing to mention a few. The mentally ill inmates leaving detention centers devoid of adequate assistance in terms of medication, link to mental health professionals and beneficial support programs, and accommodation are nearly sure of being overwhelmed by stress, which is in turn probable of leading to conducts that comprise technical contravention of release situations or a new offense. Unluckily, the requirement for re-entry programs far exceeds the number of the inmates (Hopgood 76-78).

Most of the inmates with mental illness leave detention centers devoid of arrangements to make sure that they keep on obtaining the required psychiatric care, organized availability of public help, and support to rise above the complex challenges of life after incarceration. In such instances, the stigmatization for having been a convict is amid the problems that the mentally ill experience over and above the challenges that existed prior to detention.

A Human Rights Structure

The values of human rights recognize the unique susceptibility of inmates to abuse and offer them special protection. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has asserted the positive obligation of nations to safeguard the rights of the individuals whose susceptibility emanates from their condition as people divested of their liberty. Numerous distinct but inter-connected human rights perceptions are considerably pertinent to the treatment of the mentally ill inmates. Treatment of the mentally ill prisoners ought to value human dignity, the right to treatment, the highest achievable standard of wellbeing, and freedom from suffering or cruel, ruthless, and undignified punishment or handling (Sikkink 95-97).

Detention centers that value human rights will offer a full scope of psychological health care with the personnel, supplies, and facilities required in suitably serving the inmates. Custodial strategies and processes may be regulated to uphold safety requirements devoid of compromising mental health care. In such situations, psychiatrists and prison officers will avoid situations where they are compelled to select between what they are aware ought to be done with respect to principles of care and sound ideologies of therapy, and what are practical conditions.

Valuing the human rights of inmates underpins and safeguards the fundamental aspects set by the global community (Sikkink 98). It also promotes successful and safe running of detention centers. Nonetheless, human rights values are usually not applied to ensure that the rights of inmates, particularly the mentally ill, in the US detention centers are honored. The rights of the inmates are little identified and nearly never directly used. A human rights progression to mental health care for inmates further upholds the value of continued care to make sure that they continue receiving therapy even after being released. The UN-supported Standard Minimum Rules for the handling of inmates establishes that detention centers should make sure that upon release prisoners are not just ready but capable of living a peaceable and self-sustaining life. This could be facilitated by the prisons collaborating with suitable organizations to identify and offer vital therapy, care, and backing upon the inmates’ return to the community.

Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) affirms that no person ought to be subjected to anguish, cruelty, inhumane, and undignified punishment. When the health of the mentally ill inmates worsens and they are subjected to psychological torture, and the required care is not availed, their right of being free of cruelty and inhumane treatment is infringed. Article 7 of the ICCPR is also violated when inmates are incarcerated under situations that leave them at a high danger of mental harm, for instance, isolation. In 2009, President Barack Obama declared that America would endorse Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This happened shortly after the announcement. The CRPD ascertains that care to the people with different forms of disabilities, encompassing mental disability, does not represent a concern for therapy and wellbeing but is fundamental to the appropriate administration of evenhandedness. Keeping inmates with mental disorders in isolation results in the contravention of the CRPD and infringes other rights (Sikkink 95-97).


  1. Decrease the rate of incarceration: The US has the greatest rate of incarceration internationally since people are detained even for minor and nonviolent crimes. However, detention centers ought to hold the violent and hazardous inmates. Alternative means such as probation ought to be employed for minor crimes. Reducing the level of incarceration will lead to fewer mentally ill inmates and increased resources for the prisoners (Sikkink 95-97).
  2. Increase financing for mental health care: Laws should be made to increase funding for designing and executing collaborative endeavors between psychiatrists and the criminal justice system for the enhancement of efficient therapy for the mentally ill individuals. Congress ought to make sure that the funds provided are utilized properly in offering mental health services to the mentally ill inmates.
  • Eradication of lengthy isolation of inmates with mental illness: Congress should make laws or amend the existing ones to ensure that mentally ill inmates are not detained in poor conditions in the isolation units or supermax prisons. Mentally ill inmates should be given intense safety measures and mental health care when confined in specialized facilities that guarantee interrelations and beneficial activities (Sikkink 99-101). Congress and other stakeholders should allocate funds for the construction of good correctional facilities where the mentally ill inmates can be kept instead of the ordinary detention centers, isolation units, or supermax prisons.    
  1. Enhance access to mental health care and other public benefits after release: There should be amendments to the present laws to finance mental health care provision, which will ensure that inmates continue enjoying psychiatric services even after release from the correctional facilities. The continuity of proper psychiatric services to inmates after release will assist them to manage the mental disorders and decrease the risk of recidivism (Sikkink 95-97).


Addressing mental and human rights properly may help the mentally ill inmates to deal with the disorder fruitfully, and other prisoners might benefit from the lessening of terrible symptoms, avoid degeneration of their challenges, and prevent the occurrence of suicide. Correctional facilities in the US and other countries around the globe are poorly set to respond duly to the requirements of the mentally ill convicts. Mental health services in the detention centers are mainly appallingly substandard and stultified by the shortage of staff, inadequate facilities, and constrained programs. Though there are various thorough and dedicated mental health experts working in the detention centers, they experience overpowering if not insuperable complexities to realizing the requirements of the mentally ill convicts. The challenges encountered by mental health professionals in correctional facilities encompass an enormous backlog, physically awful establishments, and organizational customs that are thoughtless of the suffering of the mentally ill. To rise above this challenge, the US ought to decrease the level of incarceration. Rather than detaining everyone caught in any crime, detention centers ought to hold the cruel and perilous inmates and alternative means such as probation utilized for minor crimes. It is evident that lessening the level of imprisonment will lead to fewer mentally ill inmates and improved resources for the convicts.


Works Cited

Forsythe, David. Human rights in international relations. 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Hopgood, Stephen. The endtimes of human rights. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013. Print.

Sikkink, Kathryn. The justice cascade: How human rights prosecutions are changing world politics. New York City: WW Norton & Company, 2011. Print.

Simmons, Beth. Mobilizing for human rights: International law in domestic politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.