The film “The New Asylums” 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, while allowing equal time to explore the pros and cons of the mental institutions created out of necessity in America’s prison systems.
Perhaps the film gives us the best possible scenario with a particular asylum-type situation in Ohio. Because of the declining number of proper psychiatric institutions left today in America, many mentally ill folks roam the streets and end up committing minor or petty crimes, or some times 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, though it was often tried to accommodate them, were pretty much treated as ordinary prisoners. Ohio’s prison system instituted special programs and gave special cell blocks to mentally ill prisoners. Even in these specialized programs, which are fair substitutes for psychiatric wards, they are still prisons, and prison life is often counterproductive, as evidenced in the film, 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 task requires a great deal of patience and understanding for their inmates’ conditions. Even as many psychiatrists and doctors are brought in, it’s still a prison and not a proper hospital. As the documentary makes clear, while it’s 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 doesn’t always apply well to the mentally ill.
In the video’s conclusion, the audience is likely left with a feeling that while these people are being taken care of more properly than they once were, it’s still a very imperfect situation. Yes, at least these mentally ill criminal offenders are kept off the streets and sheltered, but there’s often little hope of them actually getting better. Prison life for the mentally ill, although in some ways more relaxed than ordinary prison situations, can never be a solution. There’s certainly a need for a new mental health system in this country. Until then, stabilization and permanent institutionalization for these abandoned mentally ill is looking like the best case scenario.