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WASHINGTON - About one-fifth of the estimated 191,000 inmates in state prisons who were identified as mentally ill were not getting therapy or counseling, the Justice Department reported Sunday.
A study based on 2000 data also showed that only 70 percent of state prison facilities screen inmates for mental illness as a matter of policy.
"This is a modest survey," said lead researcher Alan Beck of the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"We didn't assess what types of mental illness inmates were suffering from. The numbers support that mental illness is a significant problem for state prisons. How inmates are diagnosed and how easily they can receive treatment is a subject worthy of attention," he said.
Mentally ill inmates account for 16 percent of the state prison population, and 79 percent of those identified as mentally ill were receiving therapy or counseling, the report said.
Female inmates are treated for mental illness at a higher rate than male prisoners. One in four women gets therapy and one in five takes medication for mental illness. Only 10 percent of male inmates receive any treatment.
"There may be several factors, including that women may be more likely to admit or acknowledge mental illness than men," Beck said.
Some mental health experts said the statistics seemed too low to be accurate.
"There is no way to produce an accurate picture of mental illness in prisons," said Roger Paine, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico.
"Asking the prisons results in numbers that are pure fiction. They don't have good measures for determining who has a mental illness or not. We need competent diagnosis as a first step to assessing the problem."
The study also addressed what becomes of inmates who are diagnosed with mental illness.
About 10 percent, or 18,900, of mentally ill state inmates were housed in a 24-hour mental health unit. About two-thirds of all state inmates who were in therapy or receiving medications were in facilities that did not specialize in mental health services.
Three states - North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wyoming - had no special psychiatric facilities for prisoners, the study showed. Those states put prisoners needing to be separated from the general population into state hospitals, prison infirmaries or special-needs areas of the prison.
About 66 percent of prisons help released prisoners obtain community mental health services, the study showed.
States with the most inmates receiving psychiatric help were Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska and Wyoming. In those states, at least one in four inmates was in therapy.