Illustration of Black prisoner in prison uniform holding the American flag
Discrimination permeates through America's prison system. Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Mental Health

Can Biden’s Criminal Justice Reforms Combat the Mental Health Crisis in Prisons?

‘I don’t know anybody who has said that they have learned their lesson in prison.’

For a long time, 44-year-old Topeka Sam believed that people in prisons were rightfully there as a consequence of their wrongdoings. However, when she was imprisoned for a drug related offence in 2012, she witnessed the flaws in the American criminal justice system.

“Women were being criminalized for poverty, substance misuse, surviving domestic and sexual violence,” Sam told Re:Set. The women she met in prison — a lot of them mothers or pregnant — had been “ripped away from their families.”

“Nearly 100% of all the women I met struggle with some type of mental health challenge, be it depression and anxiety or bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” the New-York based prison-reform activist added, with most being survivors of sexual abuse.

In 2015, Sam was released from prison. 

To understand more about the mental health conditions and lives of incarcerated women, Sam started travelling around the country to listen to their stories. Everywhere she went, the experiences of imprisoned women fell into this same pattern.

The same year, Sam founded The Ladies of Hope Ministries (LOHM), a non-profit that provides women released from prisons with education, housing and entrepreneurship skills.

“We [women] have to help each other because [the criminal justice system is] not helping us,” she said.

An image of prison reform activist Topeka Sam

Sam travelled across America to learn more about the lives and conditions of incarcerated women. Photo courtesy: Topeka Sam

The U.S. prison system has the largest prison population in the world with nearly 1 in 100 Americans incarcerated. This mass incarceration is also deeply tied with institutional discrimination based on ethnicity, gender and poverty. 

Since the 1980s, there has been an 800% increase in the number of women incarcerated and on an average, Black people are incarcerated five times more than their white counterparts. But this racism does not end with incarceration numbers. A study has shown that white inmates with mental health challenges are often referred to care and treatment while Black and Hispanic people are more likely to be put in solitary confinement.

“So many people take their lives in solitary confinement. If they are there for other people’s safety and their own safety, how does that happen?” Vivianne Guevara, a social worker and prominent public defender, told Re:Set. 

For the last nine years, Guevara has been the Director of Client and Mitigation Services at the Federal Defenders of New York, a non-profit that provides legal representation to people from low-income backgrounds accused of federal crimes.

Over half of the people jailed in federal and state prisons deal with at least one mental illness. Research shows that people with mental health challenges are often inducted into the criminal justice system for petty crimes like jaywalking and trespassing.

Also read: How Being President of the United States Impacts Your Mental Health

“I don’t know anybody who has said that they have learned their lesson in prison,” Guevara said. Strict sentences, budget cuts and a punishment over rehabilitation approach that began in the 1970s has led to the criminal justice system as it stands today — large numbers of people in prison, yet a marginal reduction in crime rate

“Prisons are not run to rehabilitate people, they are run to punish them,” she told Re:Set.

Despite President-elect Joe Biden’s policy stating that the criminal justice system will not be fair unless “we root out the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system,” his history with mass incarceration has been shaky. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, released in 1994, was authored by Biden. The law led to an increase in funding for police and prisons while simultaneously emboldening harsher prison sentences for violent crimes. 

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also has a conflicting history with criminal reform. Her tenure as California’s attorney general shows that despite holding comparatively progressive views, including being against the death penalty as a district attorney, she advocated in favour of California’s death penalty system in court. She has also been criticized for her views on marijuana and denying new DNA testing for a black death penalty inmate — both of which she has reversed her opinions on recently. 

The incoming Biden-Harris Administration’s criminal justice policy asks for sweeping reforms in the system, contradicting the duo’s history. “Our criminal justice system must be focused on redemption and rehabilitation,” the policy states. Seeing the deep ties between drug abuse, mental health and incarceration, one of Biden’s important proposed changes is the diversion of drug consumption cases to drug courts. 

“Even within the existing drug courts, there are clear disparities. If we look at who has access to these courts, it is clear that it is not Black or brown people,” Sam reflected.

The incoming Biden-Harris Administration’s criminal justice policy asks for sweeping reforms in the system, contradicting the duo’s history.

Biden’s policy also aims to fund initiatives to partner social workers, disability experts, mental health and substance abuse experts with police departments. Shortcomings in the police department — against which protests peaked during the Obama Administration — necessitate this measure. George Floyd’s death while in police custody and the subsequent protests further point at the urgency for reform.  

While this aligns with Biden’s promise of incarcerating fewer people, it doesn’t aid much in dealing with the already prevalent mental health challenges in prisons. 

“The majority of staff in prisons, even though some of them have medical or social work degrees, are not educated with how to identify mental health issues or how to treat them,” Guevara said. She believes Biden’s policy is vague. “[The policy] needs to be better stated and outlined and needs to include people affected by incarceration,” she added. 

In his policy, Biden says turning formerly incarcerated people into productive members of the society “is not only the right thing to do, but will also help grow our economy.” However, there are no further details on how he aims to facilitate the reentry of people from prisoners to be an integral part of the society. 

In fact, that is a serious challenge he will have to face as the next President of the United States. Though most people in prisons will be released at some point, the recidivism rates are as high at 80%, with two-thirds of them likely being rearrested within three years of release. Furthermore, data shows that there is a high chance of death by drug overdose and suicide among people formerly incarcerated, especially within two weeks of their release.

Also read: Promises to Keep: Will Joe Biden Be Able to Tackle America’s Growing Mental Health Crisis? 

At the core of it, a prison system focused on rehabilitation aims to reintegrate prisoners into society. Rehabilitation works through psychological and reformative measures to minimize the chance of prisoners to reoffend. A significantly high rate of reentry coupled with the mental health challenges of incarcerated people — former and present — can in part explain the need for the Biden Administration to promise monumental changes in the criminal justice system.

“Do we want them [formerly incarcerated people] to come back home better or do we want them to come home from prison with more pain?,” Sam asked.

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Can Biden’s Criminal Justice Reforms Combat the Mental Health Crisis in Prisons?