Skip to Main Content

Incarcerated Populations

The scope of this guide is meant to inform all who interact with it on related issues to mass incarceration and link interested parties to data and advocacy resources.

Disability and Mental Illness

In the United States, over 2 million individuals with diagnosed mental illness are incarcerated (Steadman et al., 2009). Additionally, those that are in state and federal prisons are 3x as likely to report having a disability than the general population. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has an infographic (shown and linked below) on mental illness and the criminal legal system.

Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System infographic by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Clicking the image will take you to a PDF where you can read/listen to the full text of the infographic.

National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2021

Overrepresentation in Corrections Facilities

Individuals with diagnosed mental illnesses and disabilities are overrepresented in jails and prisons in the United States. One systematic review found that the prevalence of mental illness was 3-12 times higher within state prisons than in community samples (Prins, 2014). This was shown to be consistent among several diagnoses such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders.

Additionally, while approximately 1/4 of the US population is disabled, a 2016 report from the Bureau Justice Statistics noted that roughly 2/3 of the state and federal prison population reported some form of disability (e.g. vision, hearing, ambulatory, and cognitive).

For more information, Weill Cornell Medicine compiled a fact sheet that provides a lot of data on the inequities that individuals with disabilities and mental illness experience in carceral settings.


Contributing Factors

There are several contributing factors related to the disparate frequency of incarcerated mentally ill and disabled individuals.

Alternatives to Incarceration

Because mentally ill and disabled people are at higher risk of incarceration due to their vulnerable state, many suggest alternative measures for corrections and rehabilitation in place of incarceration.

These alternatives have varying involvement with police. Learn more and see examples for each here.

  • Complete Police Involvement
  • Partnerships with Police
  • Community-Based Approaches


Mental Health Ecosystem

NAMI developed a report that observes factors within community services that enhance the diversion of crisis response for individuals with mental illness.

In this report, the organization developed the Mental Health Ecosystem framework encompassing 5 core aspects:

The framework, depicted below, serves as an example for how a community should engage with the mental health of its members.

Diagram of the Mental Health Ecosystem. Depicts interactivity between axes of social supports, outpatient care, inpatient care, crisis care, and peer and family support.

National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020


Crisis Response

Several interventions posit some form of crisis response services in order to deescalate without a police presence. This approach requires frequent coordination with local responders and organizations who can connect those experiencing crisis to care services.

In order to facilitate this response, dispatchers divert calls to 911 to non-traditional responders.

These measures have taken using a variety of models all around the world. Check out Vera Institute of Justice's report for more information and for case studies of locations that have implemented these behavioral health crisis alternatives.


Access to Quality Care

Several mental health conditions and disabilities require medication for proper treatment and symptom management. Yet, despite this, several inmates report needing to discontinue medications when incarcerated. In a study of 18,185 prisoners interviewed, of those who were taking mental health medication prior to incarceration, over half of them did not receive their medications while in prison.

This is incredibly troubling, as prescription medication is the most common treatment that inmates can utilize for mental health symptom management while incarcerated (Bronson & Berzofsky, 2017).

Some attributed causes of a lack mental health care include (Kolodziejczak & Sinclair, 2018):


What can we do?

Considering these multifaceted issues and systemic biases directly impacting inmates with mental illness and disabilities, several organizations have advocacy initiatives for protective sanctions in carceral settings.

For more information on data related to disability and mental illness advocacy in correctional settings, visit the organizations' websites by selecting their logos in the interactive image below.