Jails are the new asylums for women


If there’s one thing that Rosemary Gido wants her students to know, it’s this:

“It’s not rocket science. Jails and prisons are the new asylums,” she says.

As a professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Gido has been studying how the criminal justice system treats two populations–women and the mentally ill–and how those two groups often overlap.

The research she cites is pretty convincing. When you look at all the people in jails in the U.S., the Justice Policy Institute estimates that about 60 percent of them are mentally ill. In prisons, it’s lower, but still, nearly half of the prison population is suffering from mental illness.

How does that compare to the general population?

In the regular population, about 10.6 percent of people are estimated to have symptoms of mental illness. So, in the jail system, it’s about six times the U.S. average.

What Gido and her colleague, Dr. Lynette Dalley, study is how people, particularly women, get there. Women in the criminal justice system, she says, have unusually high rates of trauma in their past–physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect. That trauma often leads to mental disorders that can become a pathway into the criminal justice system.

It might start with what we consider normal behavior for young women–maybe hanging out with guys, or drinking or smoking some pot, but soon it becomes more serious, Gido says.

Women can find themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol or participating in the drug trade or property crimes along with their boyfriends. A lot of women in jails and prisons have what’s called co-occuring disorders, Gido says, meaning that they’re dealing with both substance abuse and mental illness.

And just as more women in the criminal justice system are dealing with mental illness, they are also dealing with higher rates of co-occuring disorder and past trauma, compared with their male counterparts.

As we’ve mentioned before, more and more women are ending up in jails and prisons than ever before. Why? It’s a two-part answer, Gido says. One, the decline of mental institutions and two, rise of mandatory minimums–drug laws that mandate a particular sentence for a particular crime.

“Between 1965 and 1975, 60 percent of people in state mental hospitals were emptied out into communities,” Gido says. “Unfortunately, the pace of resources and development of community resources didn’t keep pace.”

After the deinstitutionalization of the ’60s and ’70s, cities like Chicago created mental health clinics to help people get care in their communities. But in the last 30 years, support and funding for those clinics has eroded, leading to fewer treatment options for the seriously mentally ill.

At the same time, drug laws changed. The mandatory minimums, which came about in the 1990s in Illinois, effectively barred some offenders from receiving treatment, according to the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. Higher sentences were mandated for smaller and smaller amounts of drugs–so much so that now, someone convicted of possession of about half a tablespoon of cocaine is eligible for the same sentence as someone convicted of sexual assault.

These laws have disproportionately affected women, Gido says. In fact, new research shows that African Americans are less likely to even be screened for mental illness, perhaps because stereotypes that portray African Americans as criminals, instead of having underlying issues that need treatment.

With so many states cutting their budgets, Gido worries that even the good programs designed to help women with mental illness behind bars will see significant cuts. But while the public may not be interested in using tax dollars to defend women behind bars during lean economic times, Gido says the long term effects are something we all pay for. Her last book was called, “Turnstyle Justice,” representing the process of offenders cycling in and out of the criminal justice system, when they really need treatment.

“In Pennsylvania, it costs $30,000 a year for each inmate we incarcerate,” Gido says. “Even if you only care on that level, we’re wasting taxpayer money.”

And beyond money, it’s about safety–both for the mentally ill and their communities.

“As people our out onto the streets, they have no where to go,” Gido says. “They’re going to end up somewhere.”

Photo credit: Suzan Petersen

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