Columbia, SC — On Jan. 8, Circuit Judge Michael Baxley found pervasive violations of the constitutional rights of inmates with mental illness and ordered the state to develop a plan to address needed changes. Information about the lawsuit is available at mentalhealth4inmates.org.
Could these individuals have avoided the criminal justice system if the continuum of community-based services envisioned in the 1960s had actually been developed? We can’t be sure about specific individuals, but we can be sure that few if any had access to early diagnosis and treatment, appropriate education and job training, supportive housing, short-term crisis intervention or affordable medications.
The vast majority of prisoners with mental illness will return to society with a few days of medication and, if fortunate, an appointment at a community mental health center to which they may have no transportation. They will not immediately receive disability benefits for which they may be eligible. Because they may have spent much time in isolation cells — with no access to education or job training — they may find it impossible to get a job.
Keeping individuals with serious mental illness locked away, out of sight and out of mind, was long America’s choice. Building an individually based, flexible community system is unquestionably difficult. But before we reject the promise of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, we need to implement it, as well the mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act for full integration in the community of people with disabilities.