Illustration by Raul Higgins

The prevalence of mental illness in America’s carceral system is striking. 

According to statistics compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, 43% of people in state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. A much higher rate — 74% — report never having received mental health care while incarcerated. 

The problems are not confined to an institution’s walls. Many people upon release from prison confront lasting psychological consequences: anxiety, depression, impaired decision making, bipolar disorder and what some researchers have called “post-incarceration syndrome,” a condition similar to PTSD.

It is no surprise then that Prison Journalism Project contributors regularly explore these grim realities. Below, we have selected seven stories and poems that shed light on the plight of mental illness in prison — and provide a measure of hope — from the perspective of incarcerated people themselves. Please read and share.


Life’s Dysfunctions

weigh me down like that anchor. I’ve kicked addiction / yet I’m still bound by these shackles that keep me in toe

Mental Health Services Lacking in Washington Prisons

I never quite made it to the Hole. I held in my rage just long enough to make it to the holding tank before I unleashed my new coping skills. I screamed, “Fuck you!” at the top of my lungs over and over until my voice became hoarse and I spit up blood.

Shattered People

Everywhere I step, I have to watch for broken shards. Who knew that shattered people and shattered glass had so much in common? You can see right through them. They’re both jagged around the edges and will more than likely cut you if you’re not careful.

Healing in San Quentin Leads to Helping and Hope

Through the power of prayer and with courage, our community inhales a natural breath of resilience and exhales the most powerful currency in prison: hope. This hope resuscitated me and gave me a second wind.


For more stories like these, see our entire archive on mental health.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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PJP Editors

PJP uses this byline for our Collections features and other roundups of PJP stories, as well as As Told To stories written by PJP staff. It is intended to signal the institution’s collective editorial voice.