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Gender, Race, and Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System

By Melissa Thompson 

ABSTRACT:  Mentally ill persons are increasingly being confined in American jails and prisons. Social factors such as gender and race have generally been ignored in assessments of this rising penal population. This article examines race- and gender-related factors in the criminal justice treatment of mentally ill persons. Using federal and local statistics on the hospitalization and/ or incarceration of mentally ill persons, this article finds that psychiatric need is not the only factor criminal justice decision-makers take into account when seeking psychiatric explanations for criminal behavior. Instead, demographic, family, economic, and criminal factors are all important in predicting which defendants will be the recipients of psychiatric evaluations in the justice system. In this context, gender and race are important considerations. Violent women, for example, are more likely to be evaluated for psychiatric conditions, while African-American men are less likely to receive psychiatric evaluation. A constructive response to these findings involves social policies that address the unmet needs and provide adequate treatment equally to those mentally ill prisoners who require it.

Posted Wed, Mar 2 2011 1:29 PM by Billy


Billy wrote re: Gender, Race, and Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System
on Fri, Mar 11 2011 2:39 PM

Comment posted on behalf of: Jim Davison, Ph.D.

Dr. Melissa Thompson:

Thank you for inviting response to your recent article in the National Institute of Corrections Corrections and Mental Health publication. I agreed wholeheartedly with your conclusion that mental illness and treatment are great problems in our criminal justice system. Psychological as well as psychiatric intervention are critical. You pointed out some interesting data. I would invite a different interpretation.

Having worked with men of African extraction from Africa, the islands, and South, Central and North Americas in state, federal and private prisons, I have developed a sense that being a cultural anthropologist may be as important as being a good psychologist (a psychologist I am). Our openness to explore peoples and their cultures wherever they are from may be key in our clients' receptivity to our "expert" services. Indeed, the most "expert" among us seem to drive folks from less-Western orientations away. Our us-them barriers include, I think, our a-priori assumptions about mental health, peoples' ways of coping and our insistence that more psychology or medicine is better.

Watching inmates in the "tank" at receiving in every prison has always been a fascinating study in human behavior. The truly mentally ill are isolated, and one can always count on the other inmates PARTICULARLY MY DEAREST ALLIES, the African Americans, to tell you, nonverbally, just who is is crisis and how bad it really is. In spite of what I observed as a general taboo against being labelled mentally ill, African-American inmates were to me my greatest resource for suicide watch companions, peer mentors, and group therapy. They shied away, it seemed, from psychiatric intervention, unless it was to try to continue the seroquel or neurontin invariably prescribed all addicts coming out of D.C. jail.   Honesty after that got straightened out was their golden asset.

Other cultures of African extraction had differing spiritual beliefs and culturally-attuned coping mechanisms, but they also seemed to look askance at the monolithic western psychiatry model.

I always found that humor was the best ambassador in relating to folks from other cultures and it served me well. I got lots of help from the people I tried so hard to serve. Now I am not saying that most prison psychologists/psychiatrists are humorless, but perhaps a dose of humility might serve us all before we jump headlong into confining assumptions about race and policy reform.

Thank you for listening. -Jim Davison, Ph.D.

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