Prisons as a Dumping Ground for Mental Health

Steven Slevin had a lifelong history of mental illness. On August 24, 2005, Slevin was charged with driving while intoxicated and receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle, and checked into the Dona Ana County Detention Center.

He was placed in solitary confinement, and remained there for approximately 18 months. He was briefly released for 14 days to receive psychiatric care and was returned to solitary confinement, for a total of 22 months, before the charges were dismissed and he was released on June 25, 2007 due to incapacity of participating in his own defence.

Slevin files suit on December 23, 2008, and on January 24, 2012 a jury awarded him $22 million, $6.5 million in punitive damages, and $15.5 compensatory damages for deprivation of constitutional rights, including the right to humane conditions of confinement, the right to receive adequate medical attention, and depriving him of procedural due process.

The court documents, including the complaint, trial briefs, and jury verdict, are available here. The county is expected to appeal the decision.

The inability of prisons to deal with mental health problems has long been recognized. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 450 million people with mental illness, who are highly represented in prisons populations,

The disproportionately high rate of mental disorders in prisons is related to several factors:

  • the widespread misconception that all people with mental disorders are a danger to the public;
  • the general intolerance of many societies to difficult or disturbing behaviour;
  • the failure to promote treatment, care and rehabilitation,
  • and, above all, the lack of, or poor access to, mental health services in many countries.

Prisons are often used as a dumping ground for those with mental health, and conditions there usually exacerbate mental health disorders. Improper treatment of mental health also has a cost to prison operations, because such inmates require specialized care and often more attention than others who are incarcerated. The high cost of incarceration, rather than publicly-funded medical care, means that the costs of inappropriate treatment of the mentally ill are passed on to the public.

Although damages as high as those awarded to Slevin would not likely be found in Canada, it is a reminder of the public cost of the government’s omnibus crime package, Bill C-10. Jerry Madden, a conservative Republican and head of the Texas House Committee on Corrections, responded to Bill C-10 last fall,

It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build ’em, I guarantee you they will come. They’ll be filled, OK? Because people will send them there.

Let’s just remember who we will inevitably be filling these prisons with.


  1. I simply have to believe the general lack of empathy towards people suffering the effects of trauma and other mental illness in our jails is based on a lack of experience with such persons and not simply because of cruelty.

  2. Sheryl,

    I think you forget that they are “criminals” not “people suffering the effects of trauma and other mental illness.” The label of “people” is not generally applied to human beings in the system, it’s “criminal”.

    And that makes all the difference.

  3. Bear in mind that the “deinstitutionalization” movement of the 1970’s in the United States put thousands of people with mental illness into the “community”, without proper support or follow-up. Many of those persons eventually wound up incarcerated.

  4. Alan, I agree that supports are necessary.
    The current state of medicine seems to suggest that many mentally ill persons can live productively in society, if the appropriate supports and checks are in place.
    But all of those programs also require funding. And it’s a lot easier to raise/allocate taxes to lock up criminals than it is to “support” the mentally ill, even if it is more fiscally prudent.

  5. The federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers in the mid-90s spoke of an ‘integrated justice system’, in which society and governments would recognize that the jails were being heavily used to handle the failures of the education and health systems. Investment in those systems would likely relieve the burden on the justice system.

    However, (a) health and education ministers have way more clout in governments than most justice ministers, so they get to spend their money on what *they* want, not on what someone else wants; (b) though one ‘knows’ that better education and health care will help reduce criminality, it’s hard to prove; (c) in any event, investment in education and health today may produce results in 15 years, which is *way* beyond any elected politician’s scope of interest; and (d) people want to punish criminals, not help people not become criminals.

    So: nothing happened, though the principle was true then and it is true now.