Ashoor Rasho has spent more than half of his life in a prison cell. According to a 2019 NPR report, he claims the way he was treated and held was inhumane. He was diagnosed with several mental health conditions, because of his environment and a lack of treatment. While Rasho was incarcerated in Illinois, his case is just one of many similar situations throughout the country, including here in Maine.

Once someone is released from prison or jail, they often find themselves back behind bars because they end up doing the same things that first caused them to be incarcerated. Prison is not designed to reform individuals, it is made to keep repeat offenders coming back due to ignoring the underlying issues that led to incarceration in the first place — specifically, unaddressed mental health issues. Prisons all around the state of Maine need to offer mental health programs to help rehabilitate inmates and reduce recidivism. 

Many people enter the criminal justice system due to acts conducted as a result of unaddressed mental health issues. Today, over half of all police calls statewide in Maine are related to those with mental illness. Someone with a mental illness will on average serve a sentence three times as long as a person without one. This is an ongoing issue all across the country.

Between roughly 2,000 and 3,000 men and women in prison suffer from some sort of mental disorder. Even with such high need, mental health services in prisons are deficient and very understaffed. Consequently prisoners are left suffering and are less likely to be able to successfully stay out of prison once they are released. 

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, Maine has opened an Intensive Mental Health Unit located on the Maine State Prison property. This program has immensely helped those who are chronically mentally ill or even violent. It has decreased self-inflicted injuries, reduced violence, increased medication cooperation, and improved the transfer process of the mentally ill patients back to county jails, their communities, or hospitals. This program provides a place that is safe, secure and offers treatment by staff who are trained in corrections and mental health. It also includes a clinical and medical team.

This is just one example of how prisons and jails are moving in a positive direction. 

There are grants that could help fund existing programs or perhaps start up new programs. These grants are meant to focus on those with mental illness in jails but to also train staff to better help inmates. These grants include the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program and the Improving Reentry for Adults with Co-occurring Substance Abuse and Mental Illness Program. Many of the largest health care providers in the United States also have grant opportunities for Maine.

As we can see prisons all around Maine — and everywhere for that matter — need to offer programs to better serve the mental health needs of those in prison, so people have a better chance of staying out when they are released. It has been proven time and time again that when those who are incarcerated have programs to help better themselves, they have a lower probability of recidivism.

Luckily, Maine has been moving in the right direction. Let’s continue to support programs that ultimately benefit not only returning citizens but also our communities and the state of Maine. 

Amy Hodge is a student at the University of Maine at Farmington, and this piece was written as part of coursework in Incarceration Nation class.


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