The FRONTLINE film “The New Asylums” by PBS is a fair and balanced documentary on the state of mental illness into today’s prisons. It has a balance of questions of facts and questions of values. The film allows equal time to explore the pros and cons of the mental institutions that have been created out of necessity in America’s prison systems.
Perhaps the film gives us the best possible scenario of the situation in Ohio. Because of the declining number of proper psychiatric institutions left today in America, many mentally ill folks roam the streets. Because of this, they end up committing minor or petty crimes, or sometimes even murder. In any case, many of them end up in prison because they have nowhere else to go.
For a long time, these mentally ill were pretty much treated as ordinary prisoners, even though it was often tried to accommodate them,. Ohio’s prison system has instituted special programs and given special cell blocks to mentally ill prisoners. Even in these specialized programs, which are fair substitutes for psychiatric wards, they are still prisons. As by evidenced in the film, prison life is often counterproductive to treating the mentally ill.
In these cases where you have these prisons within a prison, correctional officers often have to take on the additional responsibility of nursing their mentally ill inmates. This requires a great deal of patience and understanding for their conditions. As many psychiatrists and doctors are brought in, it is still a prison and not a proper hospital. While it is better for these mentally ill to be in these special cell blocks, there isn’t much hope for any of them to return to any kind of normal life. They still have to live a prison life, with all its rules and discipline, which do not always apply well to the mentally ill.
In the film’s conclusion, the audience is left feeling that at least kept off the streets and sheltered. But although these people are being taken care of, there is often little hope of actually getting better. Prison life for the mentally ill, although in some ways more relaxed than ordinary prison situations, is never going to be a solution. There is a call for a new mental health system in this country. Until then, stabilization and permanent institutionalization for these abandoned mentally ill is the best case scenario.