Criminalizing the Mentally Ill?
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2002

At a recent legislative interim committee meeting, Tim Schuetzle, the warden of North Dakota’s prisons, stated that the state was in danger of being sued for its poor treatment of mentally ill inmates. According to Schuetzle, one-third of the all the state’s prison inmates have a mental illness that requires psychiatric care. He also noted that during a recent four month period, 78 percent of all disciplinary incidents were caused by prisoners with mental illnesses.

The picture does not look much better at the state’s Youth Correctional Center. Legislators were told that 55 to 65 percent of the center’s students are on medications for psychiatric problems.

To help solve the situation at the prison, corrections officials intend to ask the legislature for a special unit at the Jamestown prison to deal with mentally ill inmates. The legislature rejected such a request at the last legislative session. The proposal is likely to get another look.

While the question of what to do with mentally ill inmates needs attention, we should also take a look at the bigger picture and ask how this problem developed. Some years ago, states began
“de-institutionalizing” persons with mental illness. The idea was to move persons with mental illness back into the community rather than placing non-dangerous persons in mental hospitals. The idea, if done right, can work and better respects the dignity of persons with a mental illness.

Too many states, however, did not commit the necessary services at the community level to treat persons that would have otherwise been institutionalized. Without treatment, many mentally ill persons ended up homeless, on drugs, or engaged in criminal activity. Some observers have called the entire process the “criminalization” of mental illness. Many states have noticed significant increases in jail and prison inmates with mental illness.

Has the same thing happened in North Dakota? It is not clear what percentage of inmates had a mental illness ten years ago. This is, however, the first time we are hearing about a problem existing.

It is well established that most of North Dakota’s inmates are in prison because of activities related to drug use. Here again, the relationship to mental illness should not be missed. A federal study has noted that 57 percent of those with a mental disorder have at least one addictive disorder. Looking from another perspective, between 41 and 65 percent of those with a non-alcohol addictive disorder also have at least one mental disorder. Thirty-seven percent of alcoholics have a second mental disorder.

It seems apparent that if we really want to do something about prison inmates with mental illness, we need to work at addressing the causes of their criminal behavior and focus more attention on treatment for addiction and mental illness.

Champions of such an approach include both Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Catholic bishops. As Catholics we believe that all persons, including those with a mental illness and those with addictions, are created in the image of God and have a right to treatment. If we, as a society, recognized that basic human right, we might not have to face some of the difficult and expensive problems we are now facing.