Should the mentally ill be in prison

Over the past 25 years, countries with well-developed psychiatric services have systematically emptied psychiatric hospitals. In fact, about 90 percent of the psychiatric beds that existed in the early 1980s have now been eliminated.

Initially, these hospital beds were supposed to be replaced by community treatment facilities to allow for more humane and less segregated treatment of mentally ill individuals. However, as is often the case with this type of exercise, governments seized on the opportunity to save money by closing beds, but did not provide the alternate community resources as originally promised.

As a result, many individuals discharged from psychiatric wards have ended up either homeless or in prison. Is it really just to allow these people to languish in our back alleys and jails?

In instances where there is no available treatment and when the disordered behaviour poses a real danger to society, institutionalization may be justifiable, but is this so for treatable conditions?

Many mentally ill people are in prison for behaviour closely related to their disorder for which they are not getting treatment. Since they do not truly have control over this behaviour and could be treated effectively, it can be argued that society owes them the opportunity for treatment. This right to treatment could possibly even be argued on constitutional grounds.

It is unfortunate that debates on this topic often hinge upon which course of action is most cost-effective, meaning that if it costs less to put an individual in prison than it would to treat his or her psychiatric illness, it seems easier to simply lock that person away.

A rights based approach takes the position that these citizens of our country who are ill through no fault of their own have a right to be treated humanely and to be protected from victimization much as we don’t allow prejudicial treatment based on gender, race or sexual orientation.

Our society is based on the notion that we can be anything we want through hard work and determination. It suits our purposes to blame the mentally ill and homeless for their misfortune by assuming they simply haven’t worked hard enough or taken initiative in their lives.

That allows us to pass the buck without any guilt and conserve resources for those of us who are more fortunate. It allows us to take credit for things that are ours more through good fortune than through self-determination. We can sleep at night with a clear conscience while others sleep on the street or in prison with little hope of ever getting out of their situation.


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