Cruel and Unusual: How the United States Punishes Persons with Mental Illness

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Beginning in the 1960s, states began closing mental health institutions all across the country. While the majority of mental health institutions were unforgiving dungeons where people were warehoused under inhumane conditions, the decision to “deinstitutionalize” the treatment of mental illness was largely for the purposes of divesting the state of responsibility for those who needed care. Combined with ongoing budget cuts to community-based resources, deinstitutionalization has meant that people with mental illness are denied essential services and treatment.

Currently, people with mental illness frequently find themselves jailed or incarcerated, effectively punished for not having the resources to manage their illnesses. Experts believe that over half of the prison and jail population has a mental illness. A quarter of that population has a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Jails and prisons are now de facto mental health facilities, and are ill equipped to do the job. Once confined, persons with mental illness rarely receive adequate mental health treatment and are at increased risk of being subjected to the harshest of punishments, including solitary confinement.

This year’s 20th Annual Conference on Race Class Gender and Ethnicity, Cruel and Unusual: How the United States Punishes Persons with Mental Illness considers the effects of deinstitutionalization and state divestment from the care of persons with mental illnesses. The Conference will examine how the refusal to allocate sufficient mental health resources has led to cruel and extreme punishment. To discuss these issues, the Conference invites practitioners, academics, advocates, and local community members who will consider how the criminal justice system has become the default mental health system. Conference topics include the lack of available mental health treatment in correctional facilities, the misuse of solitary confinement to punish prisoners with mental health issues, and the disproportionate and wrongful use of the death penalty on persons with mental illnesses. We hope to explore how best to achieve meaningful reform to better serve this population.

The Conference will be held in the Rotunda of UNC Chapel Hill’s law school on February 27, 2016, from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and is open to the public.

Additional Information

UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106
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