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The Criminalization of Persons With Mental Illness: When Will Policy Leaders Say Enough?

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Soon I will be traveling to Seattle. The Seattle Shorts Film Festival has nominated my son's film, The Father, for Best College Student Short film award. According to Daniel Hoyos, director, Seattle Shorts Film Festival, speaking on Indiestreak blogtalk radio, "The Father is a film about a father being released from prison who crashes his daughter's wedding in order to walk his daughter down the aisle." A romanticized story about personal redemption and an emotional attempt by an ex-con dad to make up for both lost time and bad choices.

Clearly, this film's protagonist has paid his dues to society and is seeking a second chance with his family and with life. Yet for hundreds of thousands of individuals with serious mental illness being warehoused in our nation's jails and prisons do not fit into the conventional model of those who have served their sentences, and as challenging as their futures may be will have the opportunity to start over. Not true for most individuals with serious psychiatric disorders, who may never have the opportunity to access needed behavioral health care in their communities. Forget about the dream of walking a son or daughter down the aisle at their wedding, which for most would be one of those rite of passages, which is out of sight and out of reach. To quote the Executive Summary of the 2012 State Survey and joint report by The National Sheriff's Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center:

Prisons and jails have become America's new asylums. The number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold. Most of the mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails would have been treated in state psychiatric facilities in the years before the deinstutionalization movement led to the closing of the hospitals, a trend that continues to this day. The treatment of mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails is critical, especially since such individuals are vulnerable and often abused while incarcerated. Untreated, their psychiatric illness often gets worse, and they leave prison sicker than when they entered.

The immense suffering, abuse and neglect of incarcerated persons with serious mental illness in the U.S. has been long documented by Human Rights Watch and many major justice advocacy and policy research centers. While a number of states have begun to turn the tragic trend of the criminalization of persons with serious mental illness around, it is clearly not enough. It is time for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division to take up this vital issue with the same vigilance and conviction it has on other major policy failings, as it has, for example on The War on Drugs, the school to prison pipeline. In these areas the Department of Justice had the will and the conviction to identify and articulate salient social and institutional causative factors, which require urgent national reform in order to promote justice, civil rights, and to reduce the negative collateral consequences of incarceration.

Just a few days ago, Blythe Bernhard of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reported on the tragic death of Josh Francisco, age 39, who hung himself while in solitary confinement in a prison cell in St. Louis, Missouri. According to the article, his family tried everything to get Josh desperately needed mental health treatment. It is a story that is uniquely personal and tragic. I hope readers will take a moment and read the full article. It is a heart-wrenching story that is all too common. Another family left with shattered dreams and lives devastated. When is enough -- enough?