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Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and writer of the book Just Mercy, states “Many judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers do a poor job of recognizing the special needs of the mentally disabled, which leads to wrongful convictions, lengthier prison terms, and high rates of recidivism,” (Stevenson 189). Throughout “Just Mercy” the reader is provided with an insight as to how difficult it is for those who are disabled when it comes to our justice system. Stevenson gives its readers many insights as to how horrendous our prison system is. The book states “…. prison is a terrible place for someone with a mental illness or neurological disorder that prison guards are not trained to understand,” (Stevenson 189). Difficult questions must be asked to uncover what is really happening, the main question being: How do people with disabilities with mental disabilities suffer in prison? Then followed by these supporting questions: How many mentally ill are in the United States prison system? Are they receiving the proper care? Lastly, should prisoners be placed in mental institutions rather than in prison? These questions will give Americans a better understanding of how the prison system can improve by seeing how mentally disabled prisoners are suffering.
When asking about the suffering that prisoners with disabilities endure we need to understand what it is really like to have a disability and be incarcerated. Stevenson worked with inmates with disabilities. In Just Mercy, Stevenson goes over various personal stories of inmates that he has represented who had disabilities or no other legal assistance. For example, Stevenson represented an inmate named Joe Sullivan, who was 13 years old at the time of his arrest/conviction. Joe was mentally disabled and could read at a first-grade level. He was convicted for sexually assaulting an elderly lady, a crime which he did not commit, and was unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment. Over the years of being in prison he was raped and abused by inmates and guards and had no proper legal representation. He began to deteriorate further and became more disabled, he ended up developing multiple sclerosis. “…he was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted. He attempted suicide on multiple occasions,” (Stevenson 259). He was eventually wheelchair bound due to his deterioration from the multiple assaults. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many disabled inmates. This can lead to more issues in the future, showing the destructive tendencies of our prison system on the mentally disabled. According to the statistics stated in the “Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports,”
Mental disorder also increased risks of physical victimization. Men in prison with any mental disorder were 1.6 times (prisoner-to-prisoner) and 1.2 times (staff-on-prisoner) higher than men with no mental disorder to be physically victimized. Female prisoners with mental disorders were 1.7 times more likely to report being sexually victimized by another prisoner than their nonmentally disordered peers, (Fazel).
Inmates who are clearly not as mentally capable of handling more mental stress, are being victimized, abused, and are suffering immensely within our justice system. Disabled prisoners are being taken advantage of and neglected all throughout our justice system and it has been a neglected topic that us citizens fail to notice.
Another example of how mentally disabled prisoners suffer, is a woman named Trina, who is a real client that Stevenson represented from the book Just Mercy who was mentally slow and did not communicate well. Once she was sentenced to life imprisonment she was sexually assaulted by a prison guard and became pregnant. After having her new born baby, it was taken away from her and it only got worse for her, “… Trina’s mental health deteriorated further. By the time she had turned thirty, prison doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis, intellectual disability, and mental illness related to trauma,” (Stevenson 150). This type of malpractice of the justice system has been happening for years.
The next question that must be asked to understand the disadvantages mentally disabled prisoners have is: How many prisoners are mentally ill? In Just Mercy Stevenson frequently points out that there are many mentally disabled prisoners who are uneducated due to their mental disabilities. According to an article from the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology “Compared to the general population, the prison population represents a remarkably high percentage of adults with learning disabilities. Only 3%-15% of adults in the general population are estimated to have learning disabilities, compared to the 30%-50% of inmates.” (Koo 240). This staggering percentage, according to Treatment Advocacy Center, means that there are over 356,00 inmates who have serious mental illnesses in the United States jails and state prisons. Many states are not well equipped to handle the prisoners with mental disabilities. With the growing numbers of mentally ill and disabled prisoners there may be a need for specialty care.
Now that we have all this information readers can pose themselves the question: Are the mentally disabled receiving proper care? When dealing with high numbers of disabled prisoners in our prison system, we must ensure that our mentally disabled prisoners are being cared for as much as any other prisoner. Preventing disabled individuals from being incarcerated in general would be the best possible solution. If police participated in decriminalizing the mentally ill and escorted them to psychiatric services if the criminal offenses weren’t major (Arboleda-Florez 32), that would eliminate a good amount of people ending up in prison. Mentally ill prisoners need to have access to trained correctional officers who are prepared to help the mentally ill prisoners. They especially need to have access to proper counseling as well as medication. In the publication of the American Criminal Law Review released in the fall of 2010 there has been a much needed and necessary change to how the staff is being trained. The many changes include the training of how to identify and to respond to mental health emergencies, to identify signs or symptoms of mentally disabled, as well as suicide risks of the inmates (23-10.3). This training can ensure that prisoners are being treated, but we need to realize that this has been in place for years and yet with all these changes prisoners still haven’t been given access to mental health systems.
While seeing the issues that mentally disabled prisoners deal with it comes naturally to ask: Should prisoners be placed in mental institutions rather than in prison? Mentally disabled and ill prisoners are being placed in facilities due to the stigmatism that mental facilities are cruel and bad. This country began the deinstitutionalization of mental health in the 1950’s and in the early 20th century treatment centers were criticized for their inhumane and disturbing treatment methods. Unfortunately, mental health institutions have had severe number drops. According to the Ana Swanson, an economy, trade, and Federal Reserve writer for Washington Post, “At their highest peak in 1955, state mental hospitals held 558,922 patients. Today, they only hold about 35,000 patients, and that number continues to fall,” (Swanson). This stigmatism that society has about mental health institutions being dangerous and inhumane due to the media advertisement has really created an impact and has decreased the facilities patient intake. From past treatment of mentally ill, we have continued to make judgement calls on where the mentally ill and disabled belong. Before all the abuse that happened in the early 20th century there were high numbers of mentally ill in prisons until they decided to move those people to facilities that could help treat them. Because of the most recent past of these facilities people who need special care and assistance are just being brought to jail, instead of receiving proper mental health drugs, counseling, and therapy to improve their quality of life.
Some may fear people with mental illness’ are a continual threat to society. This could lead to some believing that mentally ill criminals belong in prison rather than in the general public. As stated in the US National Library of Medicine, the rates of violent acts increase with lower education levels, little to no social stability, and in areas with higher rates of unemployment. (7) Many people believe that mentally ill individuals are more commonly unemployed, struggle with daily social interactions, and often have lower education levels. If society is allowing mentally ill individuals on the streets it could increase crime in neighborhoods, which many people would not want. It is easier to place mentally ill individuals in prison for the crimes they have committed to avoid a reoccurrence of crime in their area. This way the mentally ill are off the streets minimizing the danger to themselves or others and allowing them to be cared for more appropriately than if they were to have stayed in the general public.
Some may believe that the mentally ill are dangerous to the public because of what people see on the streets and on social media with sick and homeless individuals. This creates a belief that all those who look mentally disabled may not be safe to be around. For example, when some see a homeless person on the street they generally try to avoid them at all costs. This is because many people can sense there is something wrong mentally with most of them and they are in fear of them acting out violently. People in general do not want to be but in a position where they will be potentially endangering themselves. If the mentally disabled individuals were placed in prison it could reduce the fear many people feel when they encounter mentally disabled people throughout society. Not only would it reduce many people’s fears of mental illnesses but also they believe they would be providing the mentally ill with more stable food and shelter opportunities than they most likely had before.
Over the years Americans have known about disabled people in our prison system and haven’t given much thought to it. It’s time that Americans ask themselves: how do people with mental disabilities suffer in prison? There are many ways that disabled people could be helped yet we have not enforced any change. Sarah Varney is a writer for the Kaiser Health News and she says, “Psychological disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder and trauma-related disorders, are rampant among inmates, and mental illness itself is a risk factor for landing in jail.” This is unfortunate that those who have no control over their mental or physical state are being victimized and sought after by the justice system. We don’t consider how many mentally disabled people are in prison, if they are receiving proper care, or even identify if prisoners should be placed in prison or in a mental health institute. Stevenson points out how these prisoners are being treated constantly and how even some prisoners have gained even more disabilities while being in unsafe prisons. People who go there initially with mental disabilities acquire physical disabilities from being abused in the prisons by fellow inmates as well as the staff. In conclusion, Individuals with disabilities, who have been incarcerated, need be treated fairly, given more thought, and given the proper medical support. In this essay multiple expert opinions and statistics are given to back up Stevenson’s ideas on the treatment of the mentally disabled. These opportunities need to be rectified. Many continue to forget about those who are being unfairly prisoned and refuse to remember change takes time and we need to start now.

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