Prisons: The New Asylum for Youth

By Leticia Miranda Aug 10, 2009

A New York Times article reports that more and more courts are ordering mentally ill youth to jail as community mental health programs are facing bigger cuts and thinning resources.

“We’re seeing more and more mentally ill kids who couldn’t find community programs that were intensive enough to treat them,” said Joseph Penn, a child psychiatrist at the Texas Youth Commission. “Jails and juvenile justice facilities are the new asylums.”

Some judges say they’ll get the help they need in prison. However several lawsuits and federal civil rights investigations in Indiana, Maryland, Ohio and Texas say these prisons neglect and abuse incarcerated youth, a majority of which are youth of color, with mental illnesses, sometimes body slamming them and breaking their bones. While across the country, many of them are over prescribed with drugs sometimes just to help them sleep. But there seems to be little other recourse for some families. From the article:

According to a Government Accountability Office report, in 2001, families relinquished custody of 9,000 children to juvenile justice systems so they could receive mental health services. Donald has been in and out of mental health programs since he attacked a schoolteacher at age 5. As he grew older, he became more violent until he was eventually committed to the Department of Youth Services. “I’ve begged D.Y.S. to get him into a mental facility where they’re trained to deal with people like him,” said his grandmother, who asked not to be identified because of the stigma of having a grandson who is mentally ill. “I don’t think a lockup situation is where he should be, although I don’t think he should be on the street either.”

I’m not an expert on prisons or a psychiatrist, but a prison system that thinks about mental illness as a crime is most definitely not any path towards mental health and personal healing.