Inside The Mental Health Crisis In Federal Prisons

By Keri Blakinger 11/27/18

At some federal prisons in the midst of a mental health crisis, the number of inmates receiving care has fallen by 80% in the past four years.

An inmate inside a federal prison in the midst of a mental health crisis

Despite promises for better health care and oversight, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has dramatically cut the number of inmates on its mental health caseload, according to an investigation by the Marshall Project.

In part, that’s because the prison system didn’t add more employees while officials promised more care, increasing the workload for the existing mental health staff without providing the resources to do it. 

"The catchphrase in the bureau was ‘Do more with less,’" Russ Wood, a long-time federal prison psychologist, told the Marshall Project. “The psychologists were getting pulled off to work gun towers and do prisoner escorts. We’re not really devoted to treating.”

As of February 2018, only 3% of federal prisoners were classified as mentally ill enough to need treatment. At some facilities, the number of inmates getting mental health care has fallen 80 or more percent in the past four years.

Afterward, suicides and self-harm increased, data shows. Between 2015 and 2017 the figures for suicides, suicide attempts and self-injuries rose by nearly one-fifth. And, having fewer prisoners on the proper medication or receiving the care they need could have other effects on the prison system; the average monthly rate of prison assaults bumped up 16% between 2015 and 2016. 

FCI Hazelton in West Virginia—the lock-up where Whitey Bulger was killed earlier this year—had among the largest decreases in mental health care treatment, accompanied by a sharp increase in the assault rate which rose from 29 per 5,000 inmates per month to 40 per 5,000 inmates per month. 

In addition to failing to hire mental health providers, the federal prison system has come under scrutiny for reassigning non-security staff to cover for guards—who also face understaffing problems. Using a practice called augmentation, federal prisons routinely force teachers, medical workers, counselors and cooks to work as correctional officers, a USA Today investigation found earlier this year. 

The paper reported on the problem two years ago, but since then it seems only to have gotten worse, according to prison workers. 

“The problems have only escalated,” said Eric Young, president of the union for prison workers. “Some of the facilities are making those assignments every day to avoid paying overtime to corrections officers.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.