Mental Health of Prisoners—An issue of Deep Concern but also Persistent Neglect

jail prison
Image Credits- Ye_Jinghan, Unsplash

“Look here, Al, I’ll tell ya one thing– the jail house is jus’ a kind a way a drivin’ a guy slowly nuts. See? An’ they go nuts, an’ you see ‘em an’ hear ‘em, and pretty soon you don’ know if you are nuts or not. When they get to screamin’ in the night sometimes you think it’s you doin’ the screamin’—an’ sometimes it is.”

This quote from Tom, the main protagonist in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, who throughout the famous novel is on parole from prison, draws attention to an aspect of prison life which is very important yet frequently neglected in most countries.

Many people involved with the welfare of prisoners all over the world have stated time and again that mental health of prisoners deserves much more attention than it generally receives. In February this year a study by WHO which covered most countries of Europe revealed that suicide was the single most important cause of death among prisoners and that nearly a third of the prisoners ( 32%) suffer from mental health problems. Yet in a country like India with much poorer prison conditions, overcrowding, a higher number of under-trials languishing for a long time in prisons and overall higher sense of hopelessness, only about 2 per cent of the prisoners get recognition as suffering from mental illness.  Hence any treatment or other facilities to be made available to mental health patients is at best extended to these 2% (although several of them may also be deprived of this) as  recognition is confined to only them.

To get an idea of the seriousness of this issue, therefore we have to turn to other countries like the USA where this issue has been much more extensively researched.  A note prepared by the American Psychological Association titled ‘Incarceration Nation’, which in turn draws a lot on the findings of a report prepared by a committee of the National Research Council, is important in this context. This report tells us that mental illness prisoners in this country is pervasive, with 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners reporting mental health concerns. This report also found substance abuse concerns to be rampant and often co-occurring.

In addition the Committee found that de-institutionalization processes of the 1960s which shut down a large number of treatment facilities for the mentally ill, together with the lack of resources to treat them, resulted in several persons who should have been sent to mental treatment facilities being sent to jails instead. The number of such persons was found to be between 40,000 to 72,000 at one time.

This report quotes June Tangney, psychology professor, as stating, “we have an enormous number of people who are suffering from very treatable illnesses who are not getting treatment and who end up getting caught in the criminal justice system as opposed to the mental health system.”

If such is the serious and worrying situation exists in the USA, one wonders what situation would emerge in India if all dimensions of the issue can be studied carefully in detail and a report that brings out various aspects of the reality can be prepared.

Clearly there is a pressing need for finding out the true extent of the mental health problems of prisoners, particularly those who are exposed more to conditions of solitary confinement, and for making available treatment to all those who need them.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071 and Man over Machine.


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