Durbin Chairs Hearing on Mental Health in US Prisons

Hearing is First Look at Domestic Human Rights by Subcommittee

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) chaired a hearing on “Human Rights at Home: Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons and Jails,” today before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. The hearing, which focused on the high rate of mental illness among U.S. prisoners, was the Subcommittee’s first hearing examining a domestic human rights issue.


“Mental illness has been criminalized in our country over the last thirty years,” Durbin said. “By allowing our prisons and jails to become a primary provider of mental health services, we have taken a step backward in the effort to protect the human rights of people with mental illness. The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. Yet all too often those with mental illness do not receive the treatment or protection they deserve.”


Today, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the U.S. – by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. But despite efforts to reverse the alarming rate of incarceration of individuals with mental illness, U.S. prisons are still the largest psychiatric facilities in the nation.


“Cook County Jail is not only the largest facility treating the mentally ill in our state, it is the third largest mental health facility in the nation,” Durbin added.


According to a 2006 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of prison inmates have a mental health problem. Nearly one-third of all women entering jail suffer from a serious mental illness according to a recent study and, according to another survey, nearly two-thirds of boys and three-quarters of girls in juvenile detention facilities have at least one mental illness.


Once in prison, many mentally ill prisoners have limited or no access to mental health services and their conditions frequently deteriorate. Mentally ill prisoners often have difficulty following strict prison rules and as such are disproportionately represented in segregation units where mental health services are much more limited and where conditions frequently deteriorate.


A recent series of investigative reports by the Belleville News-Democrat in southern Illinois looked at the treatment of mentally ill patients at the Tamms Correctional Center – the only supermax prison in Illinois. According to its account, one prisoner with a documented history of paranoid schizophrenia cut himself, smeared excrement on his cell walls and swallowed glass over a six-year period of solitary confinement. It was finally in his sixth year of solitary confinement that he was examined by two psychiatrists who determined that he was a severe schizophrenic who was in need of immediate attention.


Michael Randle, Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections testified before the committee on the department’s treatment of the mentally ill and on the prison in Tamms. Other witnesses included: Harley Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons; Samuel Bagenstos, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice; Mary Lou Leary, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice; Gary D. Maynard, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services; Kathryn E. Zenoff, Presiding Justice, Second Appellate Court of Illinois; and David Fuller, Outreach and Housing Coordinator, Manhattan Outreach Consortium.


This was the first hearing this Congress of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law and the first to focus on a domestic human rights issue. Previous hearings before the committee have focused on genocide, sexual violence in conflict, child soldiers and internet freedom.