James Holmes sentencing draws attention to the issue of the mentally-ill in prison

July 17, 2015
Whether James Holmes gets life without parole or a death sentence for the Colorado theater shooting, he will spend years behind bars, joining hundreds of thousands of inmates who suffer from mental illness, The Associated Press reports. Specialists say prisons are ill-equipped to treat the growing number of inmates with mental illnesses, including the majority who are not convicted of violent crimes. If jurors found Holmes insane, he would have been committed indefinitely to a state mental hospital. Instead, he could end up at the San Carlos Correctional Facility, Colorado's prison for inmates with mental illness, where specialists agree his treatment will be at a far lower standard than if he were hospitalized. People with mental illness sometimes wind up in jail because law officers don't know what else to do with them, said the executive director of the Colorado chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and once in the criminal justice system, they find it hard to get out. Nationwide, a 2006 federal study estimated that 56% of all prisoners in state custody suffered from mental illness and 15% suffered from some sort of psychotic disorder. Mentally-ill people do not fare well in the crowded, loud environment of prisons, the study concluded. They are more likely to have trouble following rules, which makes them more likely to be punished and end up in solitary confinement which can vastly aggravate their mental illness. They are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, the study said. The American Psychiatric Association and other groups are pushing for more programs to keep the mentally-ill out of prison initially - be it special courts or local treatment.
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