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Judge Greg Mathis of the Rainbow/ Push Coalition
Published: 20 September 2006

Left untreated, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder can lead to violent — and sometimes criminal — behavior. Knowing this, it's no surprise that over half of the men and women in America's jails and prisons are mentally ill. Instead of necessary treatment, these men and women — most of them people of color — get jail time.
Given the rising prison population and the societal costs to imprison it, it's time for the justice system to treat, not incarcerate, mentally ill offenders. These individuals can, with the proper therapy and medication, be rehabilitated. The government just has to be willing to make the investment.
According to a study released by the U.S. Department of Justice, 56 percent of state inmates, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of those in local jails are mentally ill. Incarcerated women tend to have higher rates of mental illness than men.
While the diseases and symptoms are varied — depression, delusions, hallucinations, mania — one thing is constant: These people are not getting the help they need before they are arrested or when they are imprisoned. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant among the mentally ill, especially those who have been incarcerated. Research shows that many people with mental disorders use drugs to self-medicate, to feel "normal."
Untreated, diseases like attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can cause young people to become agitated, unfocused and difficult to manage, both at home and in the classroom. Many children afflicted with these conditions and don't get the help they need suffer in school and often drop out. A survey of the nation's prisons and jails will show that most inmates don't have a high school diploma.
When arrested, statistics indicate that mentally ill, wealthy Whites are directed to treatment centers or are incarcerated in facilities that provide comprehensive therapy. Most Americans, however, are sent to jails where they not only do not receive the mental health counseling they need, their needs are ignored altogether. This lack of treatment makes for a volatile prison situation: Mentally ill prisoners are more likely to get into fights, making jails unsafe environments for inmates and staff alike.
Providing treatment before incarceration is crucial to curbing violence — on our streets and in our jails — and for reducing the overall prison population. This country's systems must work together: Schools must monitor students to detect early signs of mental health issues, counseling centers and hospitals must do the same. When a person is arrested for a nonviolent crime, a full mental health assessment must be made and treatment must be available.
Catching and addressing these problems in the early stages can help divert many men and women away from the prison system. The U.S. government has a responsibility to make sure all of its citizens, not just the privileged class, have access to adequate mental health care. Such an investment saves society in the long run.

Judge Greg Mathis is national vice president of the Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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