5 Prison Systems Making Great Strides With Their Mentally Ill Inmates

prison systems helping mentally ill inmates

Prison Systems Supporting Their Mentally Ill Population

• Colorado
• California
• Minnesota
• Vermont
• Wisconsin

Mentally ill inmates have suffered due to inadequate health care, sub-par mental health services and unconstitutionally cruel treatment for decades. Unfortunately, many of these individuals are forced to live a life in almost complete isolation, and it’s all sanctioned by state and federal governments. Thankfully, prison systems around the nation have begun to recognize that secluding prison populations with mental illnesses is a violation of their civil rights, and great strides are being made to correct this fundamental injustice.

Colorado Prisons

The Colorado Department of Corrections has been fighting to reduce the number of inmates with major mental illnesses trapped in solitary confinement because of their condition. In 2011, almost 1,500 mentally ill prison inmates were locked away in Colorado’s solitary confinement areas, but the number dropped to around 180 by 2016. According to Colorado Public Radio, inmates with mental illnesses spend an average of six years doing time in solitary despite efforts to stop this from happening. While the state has made great strides in the right direction, it’s still difficult for prisons to test every inmate for mental conditions before putting them in isolation.

California Prisons

In 2013, the Governor of California was in a war against the federal judges in charge of running California’s prisons over the use of force against inmates with mental illnesses. Governor Brown insisted that federal oversight was not needed, but an incredible amount of progress has been made for the 30,000 mentally ill inmates in California since the two sides agreed to work together. They’ve reached agreements on limiting the use of force allowed against the jail’s mentally ill population, offering improved access to treatment options and designing new protocols that will potentially reduce inmate suicide. Officials agreed to release thousands of individuals suffering with mental illnesses out of solitary confinement and to instead create special living units for them.

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Minnesota Prisons

In the beginning of this year, the Governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, requested that over $7 million in funding be dedicated to correcting the state’s unacceptable mental health treatment in prisons. Most importantly, Governor Dayton hopes to reform the state’s solitary confinement procedures and increase staffing to provide more out-of-cell time for the prison’s mentally ill population. The state found that over 400 inmates with severe mental illnesses had spent more than a year in solitary over the past ten years, and one schizophrenic prisoner tragically spent over nine years in confinement.

Vermont Prisons

Last year, the state of Vermont set forth a committee dedicated to improving criminal offenders with mental illnesses. The chairman of the committee, Hal Cohen, hopes to expand treatment for this group of individuals so that they won’t end up in prison at all. The group has pointed out the most serious problem with dealing with the crisis of mentally ill prison inmates is a fundamental lack of data concerning inmates with disabilities or traumatic brain injuries. Most prisons in the state lack a reliable or consistent method for distinguishing between the mentally ill and general population. The committee’s findings were telling, and the state has committed to improving in these areas.

Wisconsin Prisons

Last year, Wisconsin legislatures passed Assembly Bill 1001 that seeks to create a list of criteria that prisoners must meet before being placed in solitary confinement. The bill will also audit the state’s current use of the practice on inmates with mental conditions. Wisconsin’s efforts have reduced the number of inmates with mental illnesses in solitary from 155 in 2015 to 91 in 2016. In a great leap forward, Governor Walker set a $2.2 million budget for converting a vacant housing unit into a facility for inmates with serious mental illnesses. The state has additionally allocated funds towards more staff dedicated to treating the prison’s mentally ill, body-cameras for solitary confinement staff and therapy programs.


The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there were over 700,000 adults in state prisons, 78,000 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails that had mental illnesses in 2006. While there is still much room for improvement, the federal government and states have been working together to improve the overall treatment of mentally ill inmates across the nation.

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