A recent article in the NY Times describes the problem of violence in jails, especially with inmates who suffer from mental illness, and illustrates how jails are the new mental hospitals of our time, with disastrous results. The article looks at Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in the United States. “Rikers now has about as many people with mental illnesses — roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 inmates — as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. They make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population, up from about 20 percent eight years ago,” states the article.

The article goes on to report, “The jail is not equipped for them. Inmates are housed on cellblocks supervised by uniformed men and women who are often poorly trained to deal with mental illness, and rely on pepper spray, take-down holds and fists to subdue them.”

The article reveals a secret internal study completed by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. It says, “The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence…The report cataloged in exacting detail the severity of injuries suffered by inmates: fractures, wounds requiring stitches, head injuries and the like. But it also explored who the victims were. Most significantly, 77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.”

The article concludes, “Rikers is far from alone as a correctional institution struggling with an influx of inmates with mental illnesses. According to some studies, correctional facilities now hold 95 percent of all institutionalized people with mental illnesses…Mental health clinicians are unable to involuntarily medicate inmates who go off medication and often do not have access to the full range of drugs available outside the jail. Many clinicians complain that they are working in a setting that is controlled by correction officials who do not understand mental illness.”