Connecticut’s prison system must better protect the mental health of its inmates
Phillip Richardson, March 26, 2012. Isaias Perez, May 2, 2012. Cassandra Baker, January 25, 2016. Daniel Ocasio, August 12, 2020. James Harris, November 10, 2020. Each of these individuals had lives and families. Each of them made mistakes that landed them in a Connecticut Department of Correction prison. Each committed suicide while under the care of the CDOC.
A new bill in the Connecticut General Assembly, SB 448 – An Act Concerning the Delivery of Health Care and Mental Health Care Services to Inmates of Correctional Institutions will prevent these tragedies in the future.
Studies have shown that approximately 24 in 100,000 inmates in Connecticut commit suicide every year. To put that in perspective, approximately 11 out of every 100,000 people in the United States died from car crashes in 2019. We take the second statistic very seriously—numerous regulations on who can and cannot drive, long and arduous processes to get a license, much less a car and insurance. Cars are heavily regulated to prevent as many unnecessary deaths as possible. Connecticut prisons are not.
While it may be easy to dismiss inmates’ mental health needs because of their status as inmates, we must remember that those within our prisons are still humans. They aren’t inherently different from those outside the criminal justice system, and all human basic rights. That includes ensuring that they are not at risk for suicide, which the DOC does not.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many inmates in CDOC have reported only being allowed outside their cells for one hour a day—half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night. No one is mentally capable of withstanding 23 hours stuck in a cell for weeks to months on end. It’s debilitating, leading to panic attacks, outbursts of anger, and a drastic increase in suicidality.
With approximately 81 percent of female inmates and 25 percent of male inmates suffering from pre-diagnosed severe mental illness, it is inhumane to institute the regulations that Connecticut has to curb the spread of the pandemic without also increasing access to mental and behavioral healthcare in prisons . This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that DOC mental health services are incredibly understaffed, despite Connecticut having some of the largest per capita numbers of mental health professionals in the United States, yet.
The department must increase access to mental health professionals for all of its inmates. This is the aim of SB 448. Not only does SB 448 mandate that every CDOC prison have a minimum of four mental health professionals available to the inmates, it also requires that those professionals see any inmate who requests it, or who is referred by another licensed medical doctor. These provisions will greatly increase access to mental health care by both expanding the resources available to inmates and ensuring that no inmates can be denied care if they think they need it.
Individuals with mental illnesses are nearly three times more likely to become involved with the prison system, a disparity that only grows exponentially when looking at those who have interacted with the system more than once. SB 448 will make great strides toward mitigating rates of recidivism in Connecticut through providing much-needed mental health services as soon as an inmate requests them. These services can provide treatment in the form of both therapy and medication, potentially alleviating some of mental illnesses that Connecticut inmates face and reducing the likelihood that they will end up back in CDOC after their release.
In addition to the benefits SB 448 will bring to everyone incarcerated in Connecticut, it will also, over time, free up funds sent to DOC by reducing recidivism rates across the state. Helping inmates recover from mental illnesses while in prison eliminates the potential costs of imprisoning them again, which unfortunately is a likely scenario for many former inmates with mental disorders.
Demanding increased access to mental health care for all DOC inmates will make Connecticut a safer place for all residents.
Janalie Cobb is a student at Yale University.