'Old' and 'new' institutions for persons with mental illness: Treatment, punishment or preventive confinement?

Lawrence O. Gostin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite countless promises for a better life by national commissions, governments and the international community, there has evolved a vicious cycle of neglect, abandonment, indignity, cruel and inhuman treatment, and punishment of persons with mental illness. This shameful history of benign, and sometimes malignant, neglect of persons with mental illness is well understood, with the deep stigma and unredressed discrimination, the deplorable living conditions, and the physical and social barriers preventing their integration and full participation in society. The maltreatment of this vulnerable population has been reinforced by the hurtful stereotypes of incompetency and dangerousness. The belief that persons with mental illness are uniformly dangerous is an equally harmful myth. It provides policy makers with an ostensible justification to exercise control over persons with mental illness, even if they have not committed a violent offence. However, research demonstrates that the class of persons with most mental illnesses is no more dangerous than other populations, and that the vast majority of violence is committed by persons without mental illness. This article will show how this vulnerable population has been unconscionably treated. First, the gross violations of human rights that have occurred, and continue to occur, in 'old' psychiatric institutions will be examined. The deinstitutionalization movement, however, resulted in new places of confinement for this population, such as jails, prisons and homeless shelters. The second part of this paper will explore the new realities of criminal confinement of persons with mental illness. As we will see, incarceration of this vulnerable population in the criminal justice system has caused enormous suffering. If Dostoyevsky was correct that the 'degree of civilization... can be judged by entering its prisons', then by that measure, we are a deeply uncivilized society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)906-913
Number of pages8
JournalPublic Health
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2008


  • Health policy
  • Institutions
  • Mental health
  • Mental illness
  • Prisons
  • Public health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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