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Social Injustice for the SMI persons in Prisons
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 08/15/2011

Severe depression Reading about the tragic chain of events of the nation’s deinstitutionalization process that has occurred within the past several decades, it is reasonable to conclude that this action has impacted in a mostmost persons with severe mental illness (SMI) negative manner as they are vulnerable and exposed to more victimization in general population settings than any other group of persons. Translating this fact into the prisons which are basically a reflection of our societal behaviors only with an extreme criminal intent and behaviors supported by their conviction of crimes that are serious enough to be incarcerated and put into prison for a pre-determined time to serve by judges who enforce our sentencing laws. This is compounded by the fact that according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, the deinstitutionalization of our state hospitals since the 1980’s has shifted those who would have been admitted into such a treatment center to the state and federal prisons for confinement or treatment. Putting their findings in perspective of the untreated persons they state that “The National Institute of Mental Illness (NIMH) in 2010 estimated that 7.7 million Americans suffer from schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder - approximately 3.3% of the US population when combined. Of these, approximately 40% of the individuals with schizophrenia and 51% of those with bipolar are untreated in any given year.”

Since the SMI are at a greater risk for crime victimization in our open communities, an accurate reflection of our prison society should alert us to the fact that they are even more so at risk for victimization than those who are not mentally ill. Therefore, the need to assess and identify those who are SMI requires due diligence and separation from the general population to allow a lesser victimization risk for those who can’t defend themselves against the predators that live inside prisons. Not implying that SMI offenders are violent prone, it is rather the opposite finding that SMI offenders are subject to violence or victimization such as prison rape, sexual assaults, physical assaults, robbery and a list of many other violations that occur within the prison setting but rarely reported and acted upon. This void in the responsibility to protect our most vulnerable offenders while in prison creates the conditions that generate high suicide attempts, successful suicides and even homicides when the conditions reach an extreme level of not being able to cope with the problems.

Reading the National Crime Victimization Survey issued by the Bureau of Justice, it reflects some serious data that is shocking to say the least of the high risks that are posed to these SMI persons whether in our communities or inside our prisons as it is logical to infer that the same types of behaviors occur inside a prison [more likely to be more severe] as it does in our communities. Taking an excerpt from the survey it reveals that the participants of this survey were “Randomly selected, stratified sample of 936 patients aged 18 or older (483 men, 453 women) who were African American (n = 329), non-Hispanic white (n = 321), Hispanic (n = 270), or other race/ethnicity (n = 22). The comparison group comprised 32 449 participants in the National Crime Victimization Survey. The results illustrates that “ More than one quarter of persons with SMI had been victims of a violent crime in the past year, a rate more than 11 times higher than the general population rates even after controlling for demographic differences between the 2 samples (P<.001). The annual incidence of violent crime in the SMI sample (168.2 incidents per 1000 persons) is more than 4 times higher than the general population rates (39.9 incidents per 1000 persons) (P<.001). Depending on the type of violent crime (rape/sexual assault, robbery, assault, and their subcategories), prevalence was 6 to 23 times greater among persons with SMI than among the general population.

Drawing the results and putting them into the prison setting where the ability to maintain order and lawful conduct has been minimized due to physical plant (overcrowding) staffing (understaffed) and activities (major idleness) there are factors being ignored for the SMI persons who live within such a setting, exposing them to additional dangers already described in the survey. This conclusion is based on the natural or in this case, unnatural behaviors of the predatory world that exists inside prisons and the fact that more than 26 % of the prison population has severe mental illness or disabilities that are not being addressed through segregation, administrative programs for treatment and safety purposes and reckless classification that mixes these SMI with other behavioral persons who prey on the weak and victimize them to gain the upper hand in their prison social status and power grabs. This survey revealed that “Crime victimization is a major public health problem among persons with SMI who are treated in the community. We recommend directions for future research, propose modifications in public policy, and suggest how the mental health system can respond to reduce victimization and its consequences.” The same should be initiated for our prison systems to enhance the management of this public health problem and protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

Click here for part II [Correctional Mental Health Care]




Editor’s note: Carl ToersBijns (retired), worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


  1. Newtime on 08/17/2011:

    Why not present the other point of view - that much of what passes for "mental illness" in the public as well as in a criminal population is actually a combination of dysfunctional thinking patterns and/or chemical dependency? For those of us who have worked at the ground floor of mental health in institutions,the estimates of "SMI" are far less than the estimates of 15 - 30% bandied about for years -more like < 10%. There are VERY few interventions designed to have criminals except their own responsibility for their offenses and for other areas of their lives.At this point,almost every petty thief or drug addict up to murderer now pleads some type of "bad childhood" or "mental illness" and ,even after "treatment" ,continues to victimize others.

  2. davidshope on 08/10/2011:

    Thank you to Carl ToersBijns, a compassionate and skillful corrections authority, who is shedding light on the national tragedy of our incarcerated mentally ill.

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