Press Releases

NAMI Calls for Action Following Report on Brutal Mistreatment of U.S. Prisoners With Mental Illnesses

Oct 22 2003

NAMI, the Nation’s Voice on Mental Illness, is calling for federal and state legislative action in conjunction with the release of a report by Human Rights Watch documenting mistreatment and neglect of individuals with mental illnesses in U.S. prisons.

"The report is more than a wake-up call. It is the equivalent of a five-alarm fire," said NAMI legal director

Ron Honberg. "It documents brutal, appalling conditions and the denial of medical treatment of individuals who suffer from severe illnesses—who in spite of their incarceration are sick through no fault of their own."

"The report gives new urgency to passage of the DeWine-Strickland bill now pending in Congress, and other proposals for fundamental change in the nation’s criminal justice and mental health systems."

The 215-page report, Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons & Offenders With Mental Illness, finds that the more than 250,000 offenders with mental illnesses in U.S. prisons are:

  • Under-treated—or often not treated at all—because of shortages of qualified staff, lack of facilities, and prison rules that interfere with treatment.
  • Especially vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
  • Kept under harsh conditions, including isolation, that can "push them over the edge" into acute psychosis.  An estimated 70,000 prisoner suffer from psychosis on any given day.

Prisoners who have attempted suicide or self-mutilated have been punished for "destroying state property," Humans Rights Watch reports. Those who yell and kick cell doors because of hallucinations or smear feces in cells are punished, for "creating a disturbance" or "being untidy."

Human Rights Watch is an international non-profit organization that conducts regular, systematic investigations of human rights abuses in approximately 70 countries around the world.

"This is not a criminal justice issue. It’s not just about mental health care," Honberg said. "It’s about fundamental human rights and the example the United States should be setting for the rest of the world."

"It is about corrections officers being saddled with burdens for which they have not been trained, because the federal government and states have failed to build community-based mental health care systems designed to help people so that they do not even become offenders."

The report is available on-line at