Mental Health and County Jails: Statistics and Challenges

Mental Health and County Jails: Statistics and Challenges

Jails and prisons in the US have statistically high numbers of inmates diagnosed with mental disorders. Particularly, the prevalence of mental disorders in county jails is high. About 44% of incarcerated people in US jails have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Research has shown that states with inadequate access to mental health care have some of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Police officers often adhere to policies that criminalize situations involving mental health symptoms (loitering, disorderly conduct, etc.) which leads to high arrest rates. Once in jail, inmates don't receive the mental healthcare they need, which causes longer jail sentences, violence, and high recidivism rates. 

Jail information shows that many inmates in county jails suffer from some kind of mental illness. Because of these high rates, many jails struggle to provide appropriate care to inmates, leading to more problems. We'll go over the challenges county jails face in providing mental health care to inmates as well as discuss the prevalence of mental illness among inmates.

Mental Illness in County Jails

Mental illness is prevalent across the country. It's estimated that one in five American adults suffers from some kind of mental illness. According to local jail information, inmates and those accused of a crime have high rates of mental illness. It's estimated that the percentage of people in state prison with a mental illness is around 43%. 

Local jails also see a high number of people with mental illnesses among the staggeringly high incarceration rates. In general, county jails across the country see millions of people booked into their facilities a year. People who have not yet been convicted of a crime could spend weeks in jail. Other small minor offenses and misdemeanors could also result in a sentence at a county jail. 

People with mental illnesses make up a significant portion of county jail populations. What is the reason for this trend? Police are often called to mental health crises despite not having the skills or knowledge of de-escalation tactics to deal with these types of situations. This results in high rates of arrest and violence. 

Additionally, due to county jails holding people who have not yet been convicted of a crime, people with mental illness could be held in these facilities for long periods of time as they wait for a trial or a bed at a psychiatric hospital. 

Inmates with untreated mental illnesses also have a high rate of reoffending. This means that a person could end up in a cycle of being admitted to county jail. 

Mental Health and Recidivism

When people don't get access to the mental health care they need, they have higher rates of recidivism than those without mental illness. In the interest of public health and the long-term health of the individual, providing necessary mental health treatment is crucial for preventing reoffense. Without treatment, there's a strong likelihood of an individual with a mental illness having multiple arrests and imprisonments in jail.

How does jail affect the mental health of inmates? There's another reason why people with mental health reasons may find themselves in county jail multiple times besides the lack of treatment. Jail often exasperates mental health issues and may even cause mental distress in individuals, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Jails aren't equipped to provide the care, environment, and treatment that those suffering from a mental illness need, which may cause lasting issues for those affected. 

The Challenges County Jails Face in Providing Mental Health Care

In order to get people the mental health care that they need while in jail, local facilities have particular challenges and difficulties to overcome in getting people treatment. A lot of county jails face significant challenges when offering treatment to inmates with mental health issues. Many of the difficulties revolve around the coordination of treatment with other systems and programs, overcrowding in jails, shortages in psychiatric health facilities, and the overall cost of treatment. 

Coordinating Mental Health Treatment

Though county jails should provide mental health and medical treatment to inmates, coordinating with other programs and systems outside of the jail can be challenging. However, without the proper treatment, inmates struggle with their health, which leads to negative outcomes. Even so, many county jails still struggle with connecting inmates with the treatment that they need. 

When connected with treatment, there's more likelihood of people receiving the kind of care they need while in county jail and beyond. This leads to better outcomes for the individual and the public health of communities.


Many county jails and psychiatric hospitals are overcrowded, resulting in longer wait times for care and treatment.  In most counties, there are not enough beds at psychiatric hospitals for all the people who need them. In combination with overcrowding at county jails, this may lead to inmates having issues with jail staff, as county jails do not have the right resources to care for people with mental illnesses.

Cost of Healthcare

Another issue that county jails face when trying to provide adequate mental health treatment for inmates is the cost. Jails have a constitutional duty to provide medical care to inmates. The budget for medical costs is often quite high, as jails are not allowed to accept health insurance private or public. 

Shortages in Psychiatric Care Providers

Unfortunately, there's a severe shortage of psychiatrists and mental health facilities. For some people with mental illnesses, particularly in areas that lack these kinds of resources, getting access to the right treatment can take months or longer. This might mean long stays in county jails that are unequipped to deal with the mental health treatment a person might need.

Why Should Mental Healthcare Be a Priority for County Jails?

Mental health should be a priority for all county jails as it may help to reduce issues in the community such as homelessness and unemployment. It may also help individuals from reoffending and ending back up in the criminal justice system. Overall, providing adequate mental health treatment may help to improve the health of individuals and the general public health.

The US has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Of those incarcerated, many people have mental or medical health issues. However, county jails are ill-equipped to deal with these issues and face many challenges trying to get inmates the care they need. Due to a lack of mental health treatment, many people are at risk for reoffense, violence, self-harm, and other issues. It's in the best interest of each county, then, to provide adequate care and treatment for people within county jails suffering from mental illnesses. For more jail information on individual counties, check out our jail information search function.