How the Justice System Fails Those with Mental Illness

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend, and she brought up a story she heard on the news. A man who was believed to have a mental health condition was recently released from prison; soon after, he was rearrested for a crime similar to his first offense. My friend concluded that he never should have been released in the first place. A few years ago, I might have thought the same thing. Now, unfortunately, I’ve found myself with a front row seat to what it really means to be incarcerated.

Many believe that if someone released from prison is rearrested, they were probably not incarcerated long enough. Accordingly, recidivism is a major concern for Departments of Corrections (DOCs).In Connecticut, where I live, the DOC describes itself as, “striving to be a leader in progressive and partnered re-entry initiatives to support responsive evidence-based practices geared toward supporting reintegration and reducing recidivism.” The department, however, does not appear to be achieving this goal; the most recent documented recidivism rate is 79%.

This failure is not surprising to me, based on my experience with my son who is incarcerated in the state. He was a senior in high school and experienced an acute episode of psychosis. Despite the fact that he has not been found guilty of a crime, he has spent the last four years languishing, without any productive uses for his time, in a cell the size of a parking space.

Recovery for SMI is possible with timely, meaningful treatment. But we cannot expect to make progress when we keep those in a mental health crisis in dehumanizing environments that exacerbate their symptoms. I believe my home state’s flawed system perpetuates the revolving door of our correctional facilities. If the system is unable to address the unique needs of someone with SMI, how can the DOC ensure successful reintegration back into our communities?

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Denise Paley

About Denise Paley

Denise Paley is an advisory member of the CT State Board of Mental Health and Addiction Services, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Shoreline Affiliate, and a member of the steering committee of Stop Solitary CT.