In North Carolina, there have been increasing concern about how the mentally ill are treated in prisons. Specifically, there are worries that people suffering from mental illness are more likely to be jailed than to be treated, as highlighted in a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Prisons and Jails are North Carolina’s New Mental Hospitals.” It nicely summarizes several concerns with the current system: inadequate space in public mental health institutes, insufficient funding for community based programs, and prison procedures that tend to dehumanize the mentally ill rather than treat them.
According to the report, the problem began in 2001 when legislation limited room for the mentally ill in state hospitals in order to shift toward community treatment. “Summaries of Substantive Ratified Legislation – 2005,” released by the North Carolina General Assembly, includes legislation that reduced the size of state mental health facilities. It emphasized that these facilities should be reserved for severe cases, while community programs should be developed to meet the needs of the majority of the mentally ill. Meanwhile, the NAMI report was written in 2010, with the number of mentally ill inmates rising and community programs being denied sufficient funding.
While there does not appear to have been any legislative effort to correct this problem, there are some programs in place which could be of assistance. The NC Department of Human Health and Services, for instance, has a program dedicated to jail diversion and crisis intervention teams. According to materials on their website, people with mental illness are more likely to be arrested, be given harsher sentences, be unable to pay bail, and be unable to adapt to a prison environment. Not only does this decrease quality of living for the mentally ill, it also increases costs to taxpayers. In jail diversion, people with mental illness are diverted from prisons into community care or mental health institutes where they can receive help, circumventing the process. Meanwhile, crisis intervention teams (CITs) work with the police to help adjust responses to cases involving the mentally ill. This tends to decrease arrest rates for the mentally ill by raising awareness of the conditions they face and what sort of behavior they might exhibit.
While North Carolina does have programs in place to help the mentally ill, there is still a troubling reliance on the criminal justice system. Overall, this is due to an insufficient support network combined with general ignorance of how to respond to mental illness. Raising awareness of this situation is a key step to improving it.