DOJ Surveys Mental Health Among Prison and Jail Inmates

DOJ Surveys Mental Health Among Prison and Jail Inmates

About one-in-seven state and federal prisoners and one-in-four jail inmates report having serious psychological distress, according to a study released by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics on June 22.

The report was based on a survey DOJ conducted on the incidence of mental health problems among inmates in local jails and state and federal prisons, which included responses from over 100,000 men and women inmates. The survey was run between February 2011 and March 2012 and asked participants whether a mental professional had ever diagnosed them as having serious psychological distress, including such conditions as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jail inmates were more likely than state or federal prison inmates to answer that question affirmatively, at 44% versus 37%. For both groups, a major depressive disorder was the most common form of mental health problem identified, reported by 24% of prisoners and 31% of jail inmates, followed by bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety disorders.

Using a six-factor scale, the survey also calculated whether participants had experienced serious psychological distress within the past 30 days. A little more than a quarter of jail inmates (26%) said they had, compared with about one in seven among state and federal prisoners (14%). Among the non-incarcerated in the general population, the comparable rate is 5%.

For both previous diagnoses and recent experience, the survey revealed striking disparities between female and male inmates. While 40.8% of male jail inmates said they had been diagnosed with a mental health problem, among female inmates (who comprise only 7% of the total incarcerated population), the prevalence rose to 67.9%. Similarly, slightly more than a quarter of male jail inmates (25.5%) had experienced serious mental distress within the past 30 days, compared with almost a third (32.3%) of female jail inmates.

Researchers also found racial disparities in the data: over half of all white jail inmates (57%), female and male, reported having been diagnosed with a serious mental disorder, significantly higher than the rates for either Hispanics (31%) or African-Americans (36%). For state and federal prisoners, the pattern was similar, but the rates were lower than for jail inmates: 51% for whites, 26% for Hispanics, and 30% for African-Americans.

How many inmates with diagnosed mental health problems have received or are receiving treatment? Of diagnosed prisoners, 88% had received treatment at some point: 75% had received therapy or counseling, 76% had been prescribed medication, and 45% had stayed at least overnight in a hospital. For jail inmates who had been diagnosed with a mental disorder, 90% had received some treatment, and 80% had received medication.

Nearly three-quarters of both prisoners (74%) and jail inmates (73%) said they had received treatment at some point during their lifetimes. Over 40% of each group said they had been hospitalized for a mental condition, and over 60% had at some point taken medication for a mental health problem.

Prisoners and jail inmates who had been diagnosed with a mental disorder reported nearly equal rates (37% and 38%, respectively) for currently receiving some form of treatment. Medication was the most common form of current treatment, with about 30% of each group currently on prescription medication.

The full report, “Indicators of Mental Health Problems reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12,” is available on the Bureau of Justice Statistics website.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014), and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).