A report issued in September by the Department of Justice citing the prevalence of mental health problems among prisoners in federal and state prisons and local jails was called "an indictment of the nation's mental health care system" by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, MSW, executive director, National Alliance on Mental Illness.
More than half of all prison and jail inmates, including 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates, were found to have a mental health problem, according to a new study published by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
The findings in this report were based on a nationally representative sample of prisoners (in 2004) and jail inmates (in 2002).
"It is both a scandal and a national tragedy. The figures are worse than those generally believed in the past, in which estimates of the total number of inmates with mental illnesses have been approximately 20%," said Fitzpatrick. "The study reveals that the problem is two to three times greater than anyone imagined."
Stu Smith, a spokesman for the BJS, said that no similar studies had been done in the past, so there was no baseline with which to compare the recent numbers. He suggested that the numbers of prisoners with psychiatric problems had remained fairly static. However, the BJS did publish a somewhat analogous study in 1999 that said that the highest rate of mental illness was among white women in state prisons—29%. That would indicate that the 56% prevalence of mental problems among state prisoners reported in the current study was a considerable increase.