Main content

America's New Bedlam

Hilary Andersson investigates the more than one million mentally ill prisoners held in US jails and prisons, most of whom are incarcerated for relatively minor offences

Across the United States, more than a million mentally ill people today are not in hospitals, but in jails and prisons - in the majority of cases, for relatively minor misdemeanours. Chilling stories have emerged of solitary confinement, physical abuse and even death as the mentally troubled find themselves behind bars, following widespread closures within the country's system of mental asylums from the 1950s onward. In this programme, which some listeners may find disturbing, Hilary Andersson goes behind closed doors to investigate the system which has come to replace those old, discredited asylums, and which itself now stands accused of neglecting some its most vulnerable inmates.

Using first hand testimony and recordings from jails' and prisons' own security cameras, the programme uncovers cases of draconian discipline, violence and self-harm. High ranking staff within America's penal institutions speak of their frustration at having to house people who, they say, should not be incarcerated. Most damning of all, during the course of production Andersson and her colleagues have identified at least 80 mentally ill prisoners who have died in custody since 2003. But there seems to be little chance of any improvement; America's jails and prisons have, it seems, become its new asylums.

Produced by Mike Gallagher

(Image: Security staff standing in the grounds of Cook County Jail, Chicago. BBC Copyright)

Available now

25 minutes

Broadcasts

Download this programme

Download this programme

Subscribe to this programme or download individual episodes