Saturday, December 4, 2010

Prison and poverty an endless loop - Editorial -

How long can legislature ignore need for change?
Click on this link to read the story in its entirely.

I wrote a letter to the Lexington Herald-Leader editor on November 28, but it was not published in the opinion section. My rebuttal was only 250 words, this is the long version.

Pay No
w or Pay Later Kentucky: by GG Burns

Thanks for exposing the misuse of Kentucky state funds. However, your failure to mention one important reason Kentucky has the fastest growing prison population in the United States is frankly disingenuous! Why are Kentucky's prisons growing faster than all other states, yet it's crime rate falls below the rest of the country? Why, because our country's jails and prisons have become the defacto mental facilities!

In May 2010, Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, VA, (a national nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness) and the National Sheriffs' Association released a 50-state report, revealing that people with severe mental illness, (which are biological brain diseases) are three times more likely to be in correctional institutions than psychiatric hospitals.

According to a Treatment Advocacy Report in June 2005, there were over 30,000 Kentuckians in local and state prisons. 4,805 of them suffered with serious mental illness, (16%). One year prior to this report in 2004, the number of patients in psychiatric or general hospitals in Kentucky was only 1,638.

In 2006 and again in 2009, Kentucky’s mental health care system received an F grade from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI). NAMI is a national, 30-year old grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. Again, Kentucky's funding is pouring into the “reactive” pay-later department called corrections. Kentucky's department of Health and Family services have been flat funded for years while Kentucky's prisons grow like wildfire. When in fact, the lack of sufficient mental health services sets these individuals with serious illnesses up to fail! It takes years to obtain the smallest amounts of services, small wonder so many self-medicate with illegal substances.

On October 19, 2010, NAMI published: "Election 2010: People with Mental Illness Don't Belong Behind Bars” ... Are Candidates Addressing the Facts Report". NAMI’s report charged that when states cut mental health services, costs often are shifted to law enforcement and corrections systems, with almost 25 percent of inmates in prisons and 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system living with serious mental illnesses.


  • About two million people with serious mental illness are booked into local jails each year.
  • Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also experience mental health disorders.
  • In prisons, almost 25 percent of inmates live with serious mental illness, but their conditions are often under-treated or not treated at all. Harsh conditions, including isolation and noise, can "push them over the edge" into acute psychosis.
  • Fifty percent of people with mental illness who have previously been in prison are rearrested and returned to prison not because they have committed new offenses, but because they are unable to comply with conditions of probation or parole often because of mental illness.
  • In prison, people with mental illness often lose access to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits. Even when benefits can be restored upon release, reapplying for can be time-consuming and complex. Without case management and community assistance, individuals with mental illness are at risk of requiring costly emergency medical services or ending up back in prison.
Ironically, Kentucky's state budget cuts occur during a time of economic crisis when mental heath services are needed now more urgently than ever. This is an inhumane vicious cycle, called the "revolving door" which will continue to drain the Kentucky state budget.

In historical perspective, we have returned to the early nineteenth century, when people with "brain diseases" filled our jails and prisons. At that time, a reform movement, sparked by Dorothea Dix, led to a more humane treatment. For over a hundred years, these individuals were treated in hospitals. We have now returned to the conditions of the 1840s by putting large numbers of individuals with a serious illness back into our jails and prisons.

Thank you Governor Steve Beshear and Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown for addressing this prison & budget crises. It is time to "change" mental health laws in Kentucky. MORE treatment, LESS JAILS!

GG Burns, Mom, Artist and Mental Health Advocate
Change Mental Health Laws in Kentucky

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