On the Rise: The Cost of Mental Health Care

COMPAS Classification   •   An equivant product


One third of adults in prison are mentally ill. One quarter have a co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorder. Prison inmates are seven times more likely than others in their community to have a substance abuse disorder.¹

Those of us who work in jails or prisons don’t need research studies to tell us what we already know: Mental illness in the justice system is a serious problem. And we’re not equipped to fix it.

Inmates who are mentally ill are not only more likely to return to jail after release and more likely to be a danger to others, they also pose a greater financial burden on the jails and prisons that house them.

Between 2007 and 2011, 41 states saw an increase in prison health care spending, with a median increase of 13%. Of that health care spend, 14% was on mental health care.*1 In a 2007 study, researchers in Broward County, Florida found that the cost to house a typical inmate was $80 a day, while the cost to house an inmate with a mental illness was $130 a day.²

Mental health care alone isn’t the only cost that’s skyrocketing. Both of the previously cited studies note that pharmaceuticals are also rising in cost, and the amount prisons spend on psychiatric medications is increasing. Likewise, another tangential cost of housing inmates with mental illnesses is the settling or losing of court cases related to their care.²

This is a systemic issue that’s bigger than your agency, bigger than equivant, and unfortunately, bigger than our combined resources. So where does that leave us?

Inmate classification helps. Mental health screeners in the classification process help. Staff training and decision trees help. Comprehensive plans help. And compassion helps.

There may not be one clear solution, but we have tools that can help. One inmate at a time, one step at a time, one evidence-based decision at a time. If inmate mental illnesses are keeping you up at night, call us. We’re in this together, and we care.


¹ Pew Trusts, State Prison Health Care Spending Report

² Treatment Advocacy Center