So much of the rhetoric these days about jail and prison inmates surrounds the purported high rates of mental illness among these inmates. Indeed, studies suggesting that nearly 700,000 inmates are afflicted with severe mental illnesses garner much attention. Yet, few have critically examined the studies used to back these claims. In a new paper titled What is the True Prevalence of Severe Mental Illness in Jails and Prisons? my colleagues and I take an in-depth examination of these prevalence studies and suggest that most of these studies -- while pioneering during their time -- are methodologically flawed and vastly misinterpreted. For instance, the most common study by the Department of Justice required inmates to answer affirmatively only to one of two questions to be classified as mentally ill: “Have you ever been told by a mental health professional that you have a mental illness?” or “Have you ever stayed overnight in a mental health facility?” Other studies included alcohol and drug abuse as well as antisocial personality disorder as mental illnesses when compiling their prevalence rates.
A summary of the studies examining the prevalence of mental illnesses in jails and prisons since 1985 is shown below.
Of particular note is the vast discrepancies in purported rates. Severe mental illness is a troubling problem and jails and prisons are often not the right place for these folks, but the science behind the current "crisis" leaves much to be desired.