Psychiatric Disorders and Repeat Incarcerations: The Revolving Prison Door

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Abstract

Objective

A number of legal, social, and political factors over the past 40 years have led to the current epidemic of psychiatric disorders in the U.S. prison system. Although numerous investigations have reported substantially elevated rates of psychiatric disorders among prison inmates compared with the general population, it is unclear whether mental illness is a risk factor for multiple episodes of incarceration. The authors examined this association in a retrospective cohort study of the nation's largest state prison system.

Method

The study population included 79,211 inmates who began serving a sentence between September 1, 2006, and August 31, 2007. Data on psychiatric disorders, demographic characteristics, and history of incarceration for the preceding 6-year period were obtained from statewide medical information systems and analyzed.

Results

Inmates with major psychiatric disorders (major depressive disorder, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and nonschizophrenic psychotic disorders) had substantially increased risks of multiple incarcerations over the 6-year study period. The greatest increase in risk was observed among inmates with bipolar disorders, who were 3.3 times more likely to have had four or more previous incarcerations compared with inmates who had no major psychiatric disorder.

Conclusions

Prison inmates with major psychiatric disorders are more likely than those without to have had previous incarcerations. The authors recommend expanding interventions to reduce recidivism among mentally ill inmates. They discuss the potential benefits of continuity of care reentry programs to help mentally ill inmates connect with community-based mental health programs at the time of their release, as well as a greater role for mental health courts and other diversion strategies.

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