New Yorker: UMMS correctional mental health expert calls for greater focus on patient care in prison

By Ellen Moran

UMass Medical School Communications

April 27, 2016
  Kenneth L. Appelbaum, MD
  Kenneth Appelbaum, MD

Kenneth L. Appelbaum, MD, a correctional mental health expert at UMass Medical School, says psychiatric organizations don’t pay enough attention to the challenges of their members who work in prisons, according to an article in The New Yorker published online ahead of the May 2 print issue.

“Prisons are where so many of the sickest people with the most serious psychiatric disorders in our society end up, and as a profession we constantly lament this. Yet our professional organizations are not very engaged in asking how we should care for patients in those settings,” said Dr. Appelbaum, clinical professor of psychiatry. The article reports alleged abuse of mentally ill inmates by guards in Florida prisons.

Appelbaum is director of correctional mental health policy and research at Commonwealth Medicine’s Center for Health Policy and Research. He consults with state mental health and correctional systems on safety and service delivery. Appelbaum ran a state hospital forensic evaluation unit in Massachusetts for a decade and served as the statewide mental health program director for the Massachusetts Department of Correction.

At American Psychiatric Association (APA) annual meetings, barely 1 percent of the sessions have anything to do with care and treatment in a correctional setting, Appelbaum told The New Yorker. The lack of attention to the care provided to those patients is likely because the majority of elite psychologists don’t have experience working in prisons and consider it beneath them, Appelbaum said.

In a December 2015 editorial published in the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Appelbaum called on the APA and other mental health organizations to oppose solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

“Solitary confinement, which continues in widespread and excessive use in the United States, poses serious risks to the physical and mental health of all inmates,” he wrote. “It is time for the APA, along with all organizations devoted to mental health, to join the chorus opposed to all draconian practices of prolonged solitary confinement and for correctional systems to listen.”