Michael Mullan


Persons with mental illness are incarcerated in prisons across the United States at disproportionate rates compared to the general population. Under-standing why this is so requires an examination of how society in general has treated persons with mental illnesses. This article relates a history of neglect and stigmatization in examining the entities responsible for care of persons with mental illnesses, including the family, asylums and prisons. The article identifies trends of institutionalization, deinstitutionalization, and transinstitutionalisation, whereby large amounts of inpatients with mental illnesses moved out of psychiatric institutions, into the streets, and then into the criminal justice system. The article also analyses socioeconomic factors bearing on mental illness as a cause of crime, the high arrest rates and prison conditions experienced by those with mental illness, and public perceptions and myths about persons with mental illnesses. The article claims the impact of social control via the criminal justice apparatus – policing, imprisonment, and subsequent labeling – is a predominant cause of the high rates of imprisonment. It is suggested that in order to reverse the trend towards the mass incarceration of those with mental illnesses, we should reject calls for a return to the asylum. Instead, our focus should be on providing community-based treatment and interventions that address the socioeconomic causes of crime.