Mental Illness and Former Inmates

Substance abuse among mentally ill inmates causes higher rate of return to prison

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) If society is to keep former inmates who are mentally ill from returning to prison, changes are needed. Medical researchers say inmates must be carefully diagnosed for both substance abuse and mental health issues.

Some inmates have been found with severe mental illness or substance abuse issue. New research shows that inmates who are mentally ill have a better chance at not returning to prison.

However, those with both a mental illness and a history of substance abuse have the highest chance.

"Be proactive to help former inmates with substance abuse issues."

Amy B. Wilson, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve, says that this study used a new approach to studying prison return rates. Previously it was believed that those with mental illness had the highest chance of returning to prison within a four year period.

Dr. Wilson notes that "these findings point to a possible need for more integrated services for mental and substance abuse, and more attention being paid generally to the ways that substance abuse involvement among people with serious mental illness complicates these individuals involvement with the criminal justice system."

It is clear that previous research failed to note that substance abuse is a major factor in whether or not a mentally ill inmate will return to prison.

This research highlights the importance of carefully examining an inmate’s condition upon release and providing the appropriate treatment in order to prevent readmission.

Prior research categorized inmates as those with a severe mental illness against the general population of inmates. The new research groups inmates into four categories instead of two.

There are those with severe mental illness, those with substance abuse problems, those with both, and those who have neither.

The group looked at 20,112 inmates using data from Philadelphia’s behavior health system on Medicaid records and from Philadelphia’s prison record of demographics, admission, and release from 2003 to 2007.

In the first year 32% of inmates returned. By the second year 45% had returned, which increased to 54% by year three, and 60% by year four.

Of the four groups, those with a severe mental illness showed the lowest percentage of readmission at 54%, while those with both a severe mental illness and substance abuse showed the highest at 68%. Inmates without either problem returned 60% of the time while those with only a substance abuse issue returned 66% of the time.

The study was published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 19, 2012
Last Updated:
January 20, 2012