Prisons Are Obsolete: California Mental Health Edition

Christopher Lopez Christopher Lopez

California corrections officials have reached an agreement on changes to the treatment of mentally ill inmates held in solitary confinement at their facilities.

The special attention is long overdue. The mentally ill are some of the most vulnerable people within the American prison system, and the abuse that prompted U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to rule California’s treatment of mentally ill inmates was ‘cruel and unusual’ typifies the prison system’s failures to care for them:

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton acted after the release of videos made by correctional officers that showed guards pumping large amounts of pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some screaming and delirious.

Under the agreement, the state will create separate short- and long-term housing units for about 2,500 mentally ill inmates who prison officials say must be kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons. The agreement calls for them to get more treatment and more time out of their prison cells.

For me, the issue here is not just that mentally ill inmates need specialized care they’re not getting among the general population. It’s that the very care they need is essentially at odds with the overall terms of their confinement, whether it be in isolation or in prison at all. There are, and there can be, better institutional settings for people with such needs.

Studies have shown that solitary confinement, especially for prolonged periods of time, can be very dangerous to a prisoner’s physical and mental health and well-being. The isolation of those with mental health issues can “exacerbate their symptoms or provoke recurrence.” It is generally only used as a disciplinary or punitive measure and has little-to-no therapeutic or rehabilitative value. What possible justification can there be, then, for its use against those with mental health needs?

Prisons are already poorly equipped to care for this population, and their use of solitary against the mentally ill is evidence of their failure to understand their treatment needs. At many institutions, guards fail time and time again in their struggle to do the work of doctors and other medical professionals. Overcrowding and a lack of resources are so bad that some prisons are experimenting with so-called ‘telemedicine,’ piping doctors in through video conferencing because they can’t satisfy demand with visiting practitioners. It makes much more sense to put the people who would take advantage of this care in a setting where they can get it full-time.

The truth is that we have experimented for decades with confining the mentally ill in our prisons rather than erecting institutions that can actually care for them. It has never worked. These changes are a welcome recognition of the plight facing mentally ill people in our prisons, but it should encourage us to broaden our focus and consider whether the prison is the right place for them (or anyone) at all. We might find we’re be better suited building stronger, solutions-oriented and specialized institutions and move past the failed project of incarceration altogether.

Brian Sonenstein
Follow me

Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Learn more at
Brian Sonenstein
Follow me
%d bloggers like this: