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The mental health emergency in American jails

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

By Tammy Newman and Manasa Sriraj Nov. 3, 2021

Jude Tantawy Art

With jails across the U.S. today associated with unethical conditions, many incarcerated individuals experience mental illness and recidivism. In 2017, a case study from the U.S. Department of Justice reported that approximately 37 percent of prisoners have had a history of psychological complications. While experts and the general public have pushed for major prison reform in the past, the recent 2019 court case Babu v. Ahern has revived this mental health crisis by accusing the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. of mistreating its psychologically troubled inmates. After approving a preliminary agreement promising to better handle incarcerated individuals at Santa Rita, Babu v. Ahern may prompt similar improvements in correctional facilities across the U.S.

Santa Rita Jail was sued on the claim that it discriminated against inmates with psychiatric disabilities, forcing them to suffer from isolation and abuse from unsympathetic prison guards. In the case settlement, the plaintiffs demanded such inmates to be given proper mental health care, including therapy and the removal of safety cells, which are designed to seclude prisoners who are uncooperative, suicidal or homicidal.

“Despite being convicts, inmates’ human rights must still be preserved to ease their return to society. The Santa Rita reforms are beneficial for those incarcerated there, with suicide prevention measures being especially important in helping heal mentally ill inmates,” Sophomore Vijay Tirumalai said.

Modeling after Santa Rita, all correctional facilities should incorporate activities like arts, meditation and sports into inmates’ daily lives. Alongside introducing prisoners to new, invigorating hobbies, such activities reduce stress, as stated by Harvard Health, and make prison life more reflective of civilian life—which the American Psychological Association (APA) found greatly helps incarcerated people readjust to their communities after release. Community-based care, involving controlled interactions between civilians and inmates, is also conducive to reintroducing convicts to civilian society.

“Inmates should not be treated as failures who deserve cruel punishment, but as humans who have lost their way and need guidance. They should be given decent accommodations and experience constructive, not oppressive, interactions with prison staff. Job training, counseling and other services can prepare prisoners for reintegration and reduce recidivism,” Junior Shane King said.

Although implementing such reforms would initially hike taxes, it is a worthwhile investment for the general public. The APA affirms that psychologically healthy inmates, due to their improved sociability and moral conscience, are more apt to quit unlawful behavior and reintegrate into society. Daily Californian states that if prison reforms effectively improve incarcerated people’s mental health, fewer will return to jail, allowing the tax money previously used for relapsed inmates to be spent towards combating other pressing issues such as homelessness.

While criminals deserve fitting consequences for their actions, correctional retribution should not compromise respect for their humanity. During imprisonment, many prisoners undergo personal transformation, taking up honest, often humanitarian careers after being released. However, such growth is difficult without a stable mind—fear and dejection can convince anyone to lose faith in themselves and the positive aspects of the world, discouraging them from making efforts toward self-improvement.

On the whole, to truly safeguard the humanity of all Americans as it was created to do, it is critical that the U.S. justice system gives more importance to the mental health of all inmates.


About the Contributors

Tammy Newman

Staff Writer

Tammy Newman is a junior at Leland High School and a Staff Writer for Journalism. Outside of school, she enjoys spending time with her friends and family as well as reading and writing.

Manasa Sriraj

Page Editor

Manasa Sriraj is a sophomore at Leland High School and The Charger Account's Feature World page editor. Her passions include playing and composing songs on the guitar, stumping others with card tricks, and playing board games with her family. She also loves experimenting with new recipes, shooting hoops, and fantasizing about being a crime investigator in the FBI.

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