Persons with severe mental illness in jails and prisons: a review

Psychiatr Serv. 1998 Apr;49(4):483-92. doi: 10.1176/ps.49.4.483.


Objective: The presence of severely mentally ill persons in jails and prisons is an urgent problem. This review examines this problem and makes recommendations for preventing and alleviating it.

Methods: MEDLINE, Psychological Abstracts, and the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books were searched from 1970, and all pertinent references were obtained.

Results and conclusions: Clinical studies suggest that 6 to 15 percent of persons in city and county jails and 10 to 15 percent of persons in state prisons have severe mental illness. Offenders with severe mental illness generally have acute and chronic mental illness and poor functioning. A large proportion are homeless. It appears that a greater proportion of mentally ill persons are arrested compared with the general population. Factors cited as causes of mentally ill persons' being placed in the criminal justice system are deinstitutionalization, more rigid criteria for civil commitment, lack of adequate community support for persons with mental illness, mentally ill offenders' difficulty gaining access to community treatment, and the attitudes of police officers and society. Recommendations include mental health consultation to police in the field; formal training of police officers; careful screening of incoming jail detainees; diversion to the mental health system of mentally ill persons who have committed minor offenses; assertive case management and various social control interventions, such as outpatient commitment, court-ordered treatment, psychiatric conservatorship, and 24-hour structured care; involvement of and support for families; and provision of appropriate mental health treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Commitment of Mentally Ill / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Commitment of Mentally Ill / statistics & numerical data
  • Commitment of Mentally Ill / trends
  • Criminal Law / methods*
  • Criminal Law / organization & administration
  • Criminal Law / statistics & numerical data
  • Deinstitutionalization / trends
  • Forensic Psychiatry / statistics & numerical data*
  • Forensic Psychiatry / trends
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Ill-Housed Persons / statistics & numerical data
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Mental Health Services / standards
  • Mental Health Services / supply & distribution
  • Mental Health Services / trends
  • Police
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data*
  • Social Behavior Disorders / psychology
  • Social Behavior Disorders / therapy
  • Social Control, Formal / methods
  • Social Perception
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Violence / statistics & numerical data