USA: prison isn’t the solution for mentally ill criminals

On Monday, I was in a criminal courtroom at the Prince George’s County District Court for a journalism assignment Monday. In front of me stood a balding man in a casual black top. He was the defendant, in court because he had stolen an Amazon package from a neighbor’s porch.

What I thought would be a simple trial for a simple misdemeanor turned out to be a small but intriguing look into the prison system’s treatment of mentally ill convicts. Berlin Ruleman, the defendant, already had a long list of criminal offenses — 17, to be exact. Most had been committed within the last two decades. The judge was familiar with him, even asking Ruleman if he was still going to Mental Health Court. He ultimately decided not to give Ruleman jail time, noting “his mental health would deteriorate” further.

Most of the time, when I think of people locked up in prison, I think of the loud and boisterous inmates from the show Beyond Scared Straight. I don’t often think about whether they have any mental illnesses while incarcerated, but the reality is shocking.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit advocate group for individuals with mental health issues, estimated that nearly 400,000 American inmates had a mental illness in 2016. Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn from Wood County, Ohio, noted the severity of mental illness in the prison system, saying, “If you took drugs and alcohol and mental illness out of my jail, my jail would be empty.”

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