Mental Health Treatment While Incarcerated | NAMI

Mental Health Treatment While Incarcerated

Where We Stand

NAMI believes that all people with mental health conditions who are incarcerated deserve access to quality mental health treatment. NAMI supports public policies and laws that expand and improve access to mental health care within prison and jail settings.

Why We Care

People with mental illness deserve help, not handcuffs. Yet people with mental illness are overrepresented in our nation’s jails and prisons. About two in five people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness (37% in state and federal prisons and 44% held in local jails). This is twice the prevalence of mental illness within the overall adult population. Given these rates, America’s jails and prisons have become de-facto mental health providers, at great cost to the well-being of people with mental health conditions.

Despite court mandates, there is a significant lack of access to adequate mental health care in incarcerated settings. About three in five people (63%) with a history of mental illness do not receive mental health treatment while incarcerated in state and federal prisons. It is also challenging for people to remain on treatment regimens once incarcerated. In fact, more than 50% of individuals who were taking medication for mental health conditions at admission did not continue to receive their medication once in prison.

People with mental illness often face challenges to navigating life in a jail or prison. Behaviors related to their symptoms can put them at risk for consequences of violating facility rules, such as solitary confinement or being barred from participating in programming. This underscores the need for appropriate mental health treatment in incarcerated settings. People with mental illness who are incarcerated deserve access to appropriate mental health treatment, including screening, regular and timely access to mental health providers, and access to medications and programs that support recovery.

How We Talk About It

  • People with mental health conditions are overrepresented in our nation’s jails and prisons — with many individuals becoming justice-involved due to a lack of adequate community mental health services.
  • About two in five people currently incarcerated have a history of mental illness — a rate twice as high as the average in this country.
  • Too often, jails and prisons serve as providers of mental health care — care that is often inadequate to meet the needs of a person with a mental illness.
  • Despite constitutional rights for individuals who are incarcerated to receive medical and mental health care, nearly two-thirds of people with mental illness in jails and prisons do not receive mental health treatment.
  • To support better outcomes for people with mental illness, the justice system should work in collaboration with community mental health systems to ensure people who are incarcerated receive quality, timely care.
  • In addition to providing needed medications and treatment, people who are incarcerated should have access to supportive programs and therapies to help work toward release and successful reentry into their community.
  • NAMI advocates for communities to have robust mental health services and supports and strong crisis response systems to keep people from becoming involved with the justice system. However, we believe it is critical that any person with a mental illness who is in a jail or prison should receive appropriate mental health treatment to support recovery and successful reentry to the community.

What We’ve Done

  • NAMI Criminal Justice by the Numbers Infographic
  • NAMI is part of a Consensus Workgroup on Behavioral Health Issues in the Criminal Justice System, see the group’s recommendations for Congress and the Administration.

NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).