Healing Trauma Behind Bars: Mental Health and Incarceration

At Prison Yoga Project (PYP), our mission is to promote trauma healing and resilience through yoga and embodied mindfulness for those affected by the criminal justice system. In this blog, we will delve deeper into the critical intersection of mental health and incarceration, using statistics and information to provide a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities in addressing this complex issue.

1. High Prevalence of Mental Health Issues:

In the United States, the criminal justice system intersects with mental health in significant ways. Approximately 2 million individuals with serious mental illnesses find themselves booked into jails each year (National Alliance on Mental Illness – NAMI). This staggering number is indicative of a systemic issue that demands our attention and action.

Inside the walls of prisons and jails, the prevalence of serious mental illness is shockingly high, with rates exceeding three times that of the general population (Treatment Advocacy Center). The overrepresentation of individuals with mental health conditions within the criminal justice system highlights the pressing need to address mental health issues effectively, especially during incarceration.

2. Lack of Adequate Mental Health Care:

While these statistics underscore the magnitude of the problem, another concerning aspect comes to light when we examine the availability of mental health care within correctional facilities. A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that nearly 40% of individuals in state and federal prisons and local jails who have mental health issues received treatment or counseling in 2017-2018.

While this percentage reflects some level of engagement with mental health services, it also means that a significant portion of individuals with mental health needs remains untreated (Bureau of Justice Statistics). This treatment gap contributes to a cycle of incarceration and underscores the urgency of improving mental health care within the system.

3. Impact on Recidivism:

One of the most critical aspects of addressing mental health within the criminal justice system is its direct impact on recidivism. ( Recidivism refers to the tendency of individuals who have been in the criminal justice system to commit new crimes or return to criminal behavior after their initial involvement or intervention in the system. This may include rearrest, reconviction, or reincarceration, which can occur for various reasons, including violations of parole or probation conditions, even if those violations do not constitute new crimes.) Research conducted by The Urban Institute reveals that nearly 68% of released individuals with mental health issues were re-arrested within three years. This statistic highlights the profound link between mental health care and reducing recidivism rates.

Untreated mental health conditions often lead to challenges in post-release reintegration. Without adequate support and treatment, individuals may struggle to find stable housing, employment, or access to the necessary resources to rebuild their lives. This, in turn, increases the risk of reoffending and returning to the criminal justice system.

4. Youth and Juvenile Justice:

While the adult criminal justice system grapples with the intersection of mental health and incarceration, similar challenges exist within the juvenile justice system. It is estimated that over 70% of youth in detention facilities have a diagnosable mental health disorder (National Institute of Mental Health – NIMH).

The high prevalence of mental health issues among young people in the juvenile justice system emphasizes the urgency of early intervention and support. These youth often face challenges related to trauma, substance abuse, and unstable family environments, all of which can contribute to their involvement with the justice system.

5. Racial Disparities:

Another deeply concerning aspect of the intersection of mental health and incarceration is the presence of racial disparities within the criminal justice system. This disparity extends to individuals with mental health conditions. Black individuals, in particular, are overrepresented among those with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons (NAMI).

These disparities are rooted in systemic issues such as racial profiling, socioeconomic inequality, and unequal access to mental health care. Addressing these disparities requires a multifaceted approach that considers both mental health treatment and systemic reform within the criminal justice system.

6. Diversion Programs:

In response to these challenges, diversion programs have emerged as a promising approach. These programs aim to redirect individuals with mental health issues away from incarceration and into treatment and support services. For example, the Miami-Dade County Criminal Mental Health Project successfully reduced recidivism rates among participants by nearly 50% (Council of State Governments Justice Center).

Diversion programs not only provide individuals with the opportunity to access the mental health care they need but also recognize the importance of a healing-centered approach. By prioritizing rehabilitation and support over punishment, these programs offer a path to breaking the cycle of incarceration.

7. Mental Health and Solitary Confinement:

The mental health challenges faced by incarcerated individuals are further exacerbated by the use of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is often employed as a disciplinary measure, but it can have severe mental health implications. Research indicates that individuals in solitary confinement are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even hallucinations (Human Rights Watch).

The prolonged isolation and lack of human interaction in solitary confinement can be particularly damaging to individuals with mental health conditions. Many experts and advocates have called for reforms to reduce the use of solitary confinement and provide alternative, more humane forms of discipline within correctional facilities.

The cross-section of mental health and incarceration is a complex and pressing issue that demands our attention, empathy, and action. At Prison Yoga Project (PYP), our commitment to promoting resilience and healing for those affected by the criminal justice system remains unwavering. These statistics and insights underscore the urgency of adopting a trauma-informed, holistic approach that prioritizes mental health care, rehabilitation, and equitable support for all individuals, regardless of their past experiences.

Together, we can work toward a future where healing takes precedence over punishment, where the cycle of incarceration is broken, and where our society is more just and compassionate. By addressing the intersection of mental health and incarceration comprehensively and collaboratively, we can make progress towards a system that upholds the dignity and humanity of all individuals, both inside and outside the walls of correctional facilities.