“Lessons from deinstitutionalization…”

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This photograph shows a man's pair of hands gripping prison cell bars.

One institution repacing another?

This recent University of Chicago Law School paper examines the parallels of the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals in the 1960s with the challenges of reversing the U.S.’s ever increasing incarceration rate.

From 1880 to 1955, the number of patients in psychiatric hospitals rose from 41,000 individuals to more than half a million. Amid changes in psychiatric medicine, the public outcry over the hospital’s conditions and the development of social welfare programs, President Kennedy outlined a federal program in 1963, the Community Mental Health Center Act, to reduce the number of individuals with disabilities in custody by half. By 1975, the hospital impatient population decreased by 75 percent.

The paper, by Bernard Harcourt, examined some of the methods that made the transition possible, including GPS tracking and diversionary programs, funding incentives to transfer prisoners and increased public awareness. Though the movement to reduce incarcerations now isn’t as strong as the deinstitutionalization movement was in the 1960s, Harcourt suggests that similar methods could be applied today.

However, Harcourt also describes how many of these successes of deinstitutionalization have been exaggerated, citing the outbreak of mental health problems in individuals in regular jails. In other words, individuals who were once unjustly incarcerated in institutions are now unjustly incarcerated in regular prisons.

This problem is also reinforced by the increase proportion of minorities classified as having mental health problems, which suggests a parallel between the racial biases in both psychiatric institutions and jails.

The views in this article do not represent the views of DisAbility Rights Galaxy. Papers highlighted in DisAbility Rights Galaxy’s Law Review section were picked for their ability to be thought provoking and promote further discussion of disability rights issues.