Christopher White stares from his cell, sucking his thumb, in the mental illness unitCraig F. Walker/Denver Post/Getty Images

In a new study of South American countries, researchers found a correlation between smaller psychiatric wards and increasing prison populations.

Though the study "can’t provide cause and effect findings," lead author Dr. Adrian Mundt said it’s important to examine whether a connection exists, but governments haven’t done the research. “There’s not much coordination or knowledge about changes in one system causing changes in another system.”

For the new study, the Queen Mary University of London researchers used data on the availability of psychiatric beds since 1990 in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Then they compared that data with data on the prison populations of those countries. In that year, these countries signed a declaration reducing the number of psychiatric beds and increasing the availability of outpatient mental health services.

Overall, they found the number of psychiatric beds in each country decreased while their prison populations increased.For example, the number of available psychiatric beds in Argentina dropped by about a third between 1990 and 2012. Its prison population increased by about 137 percent during that time.In Bolivia, the number of psychiatric beds fell by about 2 percent. Meanwhile, its prison population increased by 16 percent.


On average, the researchers found that prison populations increased by about three people for every psychiatric bed that was eliminated after they accounted for economic growth and income inequality.

Mundt said previous studies in more economically wealthy countries may not show a link between psychiatric bed availability and prison population, because they have better community welfare programs that can treat people in the community.

Other possible causes

Dr. H. Richard Lamb, who wrote an editorial accompanying the new study, said decreasing numbers of psychiatric beds may be one reason for the growing prison population.

“I think it’s definitely a part of it,” said Lamb of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It wouldn’t be the only reason. There are a number of reasons there are more people in prisons.”

Those include the war on drugs and so-called tough-on-crime initiatives. “About 350,000 people in the U.S. who have serious mental illness are in our jails and prisons,” Lamb said. “One reason for that is the psychiatric beds that would have met their needs are not there at this point.”

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