Many people believe that the primary purposes of prisons are to increase public safety, punish offenders for crimes against society and rehabilitate prisoners. But in many ways, jails and prisons have become warehouses for people with mental illnesses or drug addictions and those who are living in poverty.
In most states, jails hold more people with mental illnesses than do state psychiatric hospitals. Two million people with mental illnesses are booked into jails each year. Many are not assessed by health professionals and end up going to prison instead of being treated properly.
Eighty-three percent of incarcerated people with mental illnesses do not receive the treatment they need while in prison. Prison guards are not trained to adequately support those with mental illnesses. Subsequently, mental conditions often worsen during incarceration.
Similarly, many people with drug addictions are sent to prison instead of receiving treatment at a rehabilitation center. Drug abuse has been shown to change the structure and functions of the brain, but rather than addressing this as a health issue, the U.S. criminal justice system responds harshly by imposing long prison sentences.
Prior to incarceration, the average person in prison has an annual income less than $20,000 while the average person in the United States makes more than $59,000. People in poverty frequently have less access to good employment, reliable transportation, safe neighborhoods and education, which greatly limits their options for moving out of poverty. Once someone encounters the criminal justice system, it is even more difficult to break the cycle.
Long sentences have contributed to the warehouse function of prisons. Many people spend long periods of time in jail for nonviolent crimes. During this time, access to educational programming and professional resources is often limited due to a lack of funding support.
As Christians, we are called to “speak out…and defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). It is essential that we become educated about the criminal justice system and support alternatives to prison for people struggling with mental illnesses, drug addictions and poverty.