COVID-19 rapid response brief: Meeting the behavioral health needs of Michigan’s prison population

April 17, 2020

A black and white chalk-style drawing of a profile. The individual represents a person in prison and a node network in their brain represents behavioral health needs.Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, staff members at the Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT) have been conducting rapid response research for Michigan policy leaders who are working proactively to protect vulnerable communities across the state. In this analysis for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, we explore best practices for meeting the behavioral health needs of Michigan’s prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately one in every five prisoners in the U.S. has a diagnosed serious mental illness (SMI) and many of these individuals have a co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD) as well. While in jail, these individuals often receive important behavioral health services, such as therapy, medication, and other supports that are crucial to their recovery and rehabilitation. Over the last several weeks, however, COVID-19 has disrupted many of these treatment activities in prisons across the country.

With the isolation and quarantine in response to COVID-19 expected to continue for several more weeks, prisons will need to find new ways to support inmates with mental health and substance use disorders.

Our first recommendation is to divert low-risk, low-level offenders to treatment. Policies implementing this are already in place across the country and Governor Whitmer has authorized Michigan jails to consider early release for those assessed as low-risk.

Telehealth is a key strategy to continue treatment for individuals who need to remain in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has temporary removed restrictions for formerly noncompliant technology to provide these services. This same technology can be used for visitation. It is well-documented that regular communication from a support system is vital to a person’s emotional well-being, with numerous research studies noting its positive effect on people who are incarcerated.

Safety measures will also benefit prison populations with behavioral health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. We share resources that can help correctional facilities assess their procedures and ensure inmates are as safe as possible.