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The Best Reporting on Mental Illness in Prisons

More than half of U.S. inmates suffer from a mental health problem. Here’s some of the best deep-dive reporting on the issue.

Last week, we published an investigation into the New York prison system, and how, despite protections, inmates with severe mental illness are still ending up in solitary confinement.

But New York is far from unique. Prisons and jails across the country are filling with mentally ill inmates, while access to community mental health services dwindle. The Department of Justice estimated in 2006 that over half of all U.S. inmates suffer from a mental health problem.

Those prisoners also often end up in the isolated cells known as “special housing units,” “secure housing units,” solitary confinement, or simply, “the box.” There, inmates can be locked down for 23 hours a day with little human contact. Studies show such isolation can cause or exacerbate psychiatric problems in prisoners.

We’ve rounded up some of the best deep-dive reporting on the mentally ill in U.S. prisons. Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments below.

Mental Illness Among Inmates

My Name is Not Robert, New York Times magazine, August 2000
A mentally ill man from Los Angeles is mistaken for a wanted criminal, and ends up in a maximum security prison in upstate New York. His kafkaesque story details the bureaucratic breakdown and flaws in mental health care that led to his imprisonment.

The New Asylums, Frontline, May 2005
Frontline documents the movement of America’s mentally ill away from shuttered psychiatric hospitals, and into the nation’s jails and prisons. The result is a massive strain on the minds of afflicted inmates, and on the strapped prison system tasked with treating them.

An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax (three-part series), The Atlantic, June 2012
Federal prison policy says mentally ill inmates shouldn’t be housed in the maximum-security prison ADX-Florence (also known as Supermax) in Colorado. But a lawsuit against the facility found many troubled inmates were still locked down at Supermax, where they were neglected or out-right abused by prison staff.

Trouble in Mind, Texas Monthly, March 2013
Andre Thomas had been hearing voices since he was 10 years old, and made multiple attempts at suicide. Eventually, his psychotic breakdown led him to brutally murder his wife and her two children. As Thomas awaits execution for his crimes in Texas, his story “forces uncomfortable questions about the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system,” writes journalist Brandi Grissom.

The Impact of Solitary Confinement

A Death in the Box, New York Times Magazine, October 2004
Inmates battling psychological problems often find themselves in “the box” for failing to comply with rigid prison policies. But what toll does isolation take on an already fragile mind? Mary Beth Pfeiffer details the death of one New York inmate who committed suicide after being stuck in solitary—rather than provided treatment. Pfeiffer’s 2011 investigationfor the Poughkeepsie Journal shows how even with new protections, the number of suicides in New York prisons spiked in 2010.

Hellhole, New Yorker, March 2009
Atul Gawande explores the trauma of long-term isolation, a daily reality for tens of thousands of U.S. prisoners. “The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years,” Gawande writes of confinement, a tactic meant to separate the most dangerous inmates. But while solitary can have a massive impact on inmates’ mental health, studies show it’s done little to reduce prison violence.

New York's Black Sites, The Nation, July 2012
While solitary is used across the country, New York stands out for using it to punish violations as minor as having too many postage stamps. Jean Casella and James Ridgeway (also editors of the website Solitary Watch) detail how New York State came to house roughly 4,500 inmates in solitary confinement, cutting them off from almost all human contact, often for months at a time.

Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons, Mother Jones, November 2012
After being held for over two years in an Iranian prison, journalist Shane Bauer was shocked by what he found at California’s Pelican Bay prison: their solitary confinement cells were, in many ways, even worse. “Here, there are no windows,” Bauer writes. California uses solitary confinement to isolate thousands of inmates they claim are gang-affiliated, putting many in “the box” for up to decades.

Christie Thompson

Christie Thompson was an intern at ProPublica. She studied journalism at Northwestern University, and has written for The Nation, The Chicago Reporter and

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