The Frontline episode “The New Asylums”
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The Frontline episode “The New Asylums”, dove into the crisis mentally ill inmates face in the psychiatric ward in Ohio state prisons. The episode shows us the conditions and every day lives of mentally ill patients in Ohio state prisons, and explains how these inmates got to this point. It appeared that most of these prisoners should have been patients in an institute of some sort, out in society, but unfortunately due to whatever circumstances they ended up in prison. According to the episode, most of the inmates end up in prison due to them not coping with the outside world on their own. Prior to becoming imprisoned, the inmates had difficulties dealing with the outside world. Mainly due to lack of necessary psychiatric treatment, the soon to be inmates would get arrested for things such as violent behavior, robbery, and rape. This behavior would cause them to go to jail, and after repeated offenses they end up falling into prison.
Once in prison, it is apparent that these inmates are in need of psychiatric attention and treatment. The inmates are then placed in the psychiatric ward of the prison. Where their prison psychiatric treatment begins. This is where the episode explains that prisons are becoming the modern day asylums. Where about 55,000 Americans are being treated in psychiatric hospitals, there are about 500,000 mentally ill people serving time in prisons. Those numbers are alarming, and such an indication of the lack of attention mentally ill people face in America.
Frontline gives us some examples of mentally ill inmates going through the Ohio state prison system. They take us through some of their time spent in prison and explain how they got their and what happened to them post parole. Robert Bankston is an inmate that towards the beginning of the episode was yelling and screaming at one point, and then was able to hold a conversation with the interviewer the next. He was one of the prisoners that ended up in prison due to stealing. At the end of the episode, Bankston was released on parole. However, once he was “out”, Bankston failed to check in with his parole officer. If he continues to fail to check in they will issue an arrest warrant for him which would bring him back to prison. Most inmates seem to land back in prison after they’ve been released. There was one inmate, Benny Anthony whom at the beginning of the episode seem to suffer from paranoid thoughts. He was permanently kept in segregation due to his behavior and constant request for protective custody. At the end of the episode he was the only successful story post release. They placed Anthony in a special program for mentally ill inmates.
As I was watching the episode I had this intense feeling of compassion for the inmates. There was a sense of frustration that I felt I shared with them. Their feeling of helplessness came through in the episode, you can feel their desire for a better life. However, their hands seemed to be tied useless in the prison’s system. When the inmates went to the Oakwood psychiatric hospital, they appeared to succeed with their battle of their disease. They enjoyed their quality of life better in the hospital than in the prison. It was quite frustrating to watch them have to return to the prison because of the lack of space or what not at the hospital. My personal desire to assist was intensified when watching the patients request to stay at the hospital and not return to prison.
Part of the reason I think I feel so close to this topic is because I have a cousin who is currently in prison. To my knowledge he didn’t suffer from any mental illness prior to ending up in prison. He was a victim of the system and lack of support from his mother earlier on. If I’m not mistaken he is in a high security setting. There are a few family members that have the ability to visit him. The stories they tell us about what he says that happens inside the prison are quite similar to those in the Frontline episode. Perhaps that is why I felt so close to their struggle.
The article Prison Segregation: administrative mental detention remedy or mental health problem, reports the outcome of prison segregation in mentally ill inmates. The article goes into the the levels of segregation (administrative detention, disciplinary segregation and protective custody), and how they affect their illness. Mainly the article discusses the first two levels of segregation. Mostly due to the fact that protective custody was not as practiced as the prior two. The study showed that mentally ill inmates suffered from major distress, the more severe the punishments were while in segregation.
In the episode, it is clear that the inmates are very unhappy while segregated. The convey their feelings of being lost and not being able to control their thoughts. The article goes into how the higher levels of distress caused by more intense punishment while segregated, causes them to have difficulties integrating back into the general inmate population. The study indicates that it would be of benefit to both the inmates and the overall running of the prison system, to lessen the degree of punishment and segregation when trying to correct the behavior of mentally ill inmates. This would create a better running prison system, and develop an easier overall flow.
If we in America would have more mental hospitals with better funding, there would be less mentally ill people that would be forced to fall under imprisonment. The Frontline episode mentioned that judges are prone to sending the mentally ill to prison due to the fact that they feel that there is no other option. If such a high number of inmates are suffering from mental illness, then the funding going into prisons could go into public mental hospitals. People could be placed in an adequate facility prior to committing crimes that would land them in prison. The patients that were transferred to Oakwood seem to be happier and succeed more so than while in prison.
Another option would be to better equip the prison system in an effort take care some of the issues of mentally ill inmates. Since there are already about 500,000 inmates suffering from mental illness, it would make sense to
invest into to enhancing the psychiatric wards in the state prisons. This would allow the institutions to be more prepared for the amount of inmates that should otherwise be patients. Clearly the inmates do not enjoy living in isolation, even more so their illness becomes intensified which then creates a worse environment for everyone involved in the prison. A better equipped prison system, with perhaps mental hospitals would be a better scenario for everyone currently in the prison system.
Miller, H. A., Young, G.R. (1997). Prison Segregation: administrative detention remedy or mental health problem? Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 7, 85-94.
Navasky, M. (Producer), O’Connor, K. (Producer), (May 14, 2005), The New Asylum, Frontline.