(Andrejs Zemdega/iStockphoto.com.)

According to one study reported in 2015, American prisons hold 10 times as many mentally ill as our psychiatric hospitals do. In 1955, the number of state hospital beds was estimated at more than 550,000. In 2016, that number had drastically shrunk, to just more than 37,000. The number of mentally ill individuals did not accordingly shrink: they were simply moved from hospitals to prisons. In Connecticut, for instance, the number of patients in our psychiatric hospital, 604, is less than the number of mentally ill inmates at the Garner Correctional Institution, 640. However, Connecticut used to have a mental hospital that housed 4,000. Again, we haven’t suddenly solved our mental illness crisis; we have merely hidden it behind the veil of criminality.

Treating mentally ill the same as people accused of crimes has had a catastrophic effect on our justice system: prison overcrowding is, in part, caused by the warehousing of the mentally ill. It costs 2.5 times more to house and treat a mentally ill prisoner than one who is not. The mentally ill in prison are also less likely to be let out on bail, thus increasing their stay in prison and making it more likely that they will end up with a conviction instead of treatment. The staff at correctional facilities, while doing their best, are not the ideal treatment providers for the mentally ill—which in turn leads to a huge gap in services being provided. A lack of services for the mentally ill, coupled with incarceration and convictions, fuels the cycle of recidivism, which leads to longer sentences and greater cost for our prisons. Using prisons also creates other problems: the mentally ill are more likely to be abused in prison and are also more likely to commit suicide while incarcerated.

As Connecticut’s prison population declines, and as our Legislature meets to consider ways to save money to meet budget shortfalls, we urge them to consider funding community and residential mental health treatment programs that are outside prison walls—doing so will not only be a public health service, but will also alleviate the burdens we have placed on our prisons to act as hospitals. It will restore the appropriate divide between our institutions of punishment and treatment, and lead to significant savings when we stop asking the former to act as the latter. In doing so, we may stop equating mental illness with criminality, and the beneficiary of that would be not just our budget, but our society.•