How prisons became insane asylums

In a new study by Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating barriers to treating the mentally ill, Torrey and his colleagues expose just how bleak America’s mental health situation has become. In 2012, an estimated 356,000 mentally ill inmates were being held in state prison, compared to just 35,000 in state-run psychiatric hospitals. In other words, the number of mentally ill people in prisons is ten times that of mentally ill in state-run psychiatric hospitals.

Torrey’s basic tenet is nauseating: the majority of mentally ill in America are treated like monsters.

“Being in prison if your brain is working normally can’t be easy, but being in prison when your brain isn’t working normally? It must be a living hell,” Torrey tells me. Torrey has himself borne witness to the locking up of the mentally ill, and he paints a grim picture of the scene. “Some throw feces at the guards, sing all night to keep others awake, assault other inmates out of paranoia that they’re in danger.”

Torrey began the research for this project over a year ago when a visit to Erie County Jail in Buffalo, New York left him stunned. Upon arrival, he found what he believed to be a paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar inmate who had been sitting in his cell hallucinating for over a year. Without treatment he’d gone ballistic, cutting down tension polls that wiped out electricity in hundreds of homes nearby. Solitary confinement, Torrey says, was likely his next home.