Analysis of Mentally Retarded and Lower-Functioning Offender Correctional Programs

Article excerpt

The prison society can be viewed as a collection of subgroups, each having its own unique characteristics, needs and problems. Two subgroups that are often overlooked are offenders designated as lower functioning and mentally retarded. In order to fully understand the needs and characteristics of this population, the Utah Department of Corrections conducted a national survey of program characteristics for lower-functioning and mentally retarded offenders.

While lower-functioning offenders exist in virtually every prison in the country, they are frequently subsumed under other labels such as mentally retarded and mentally ill. Although the distinguishing characteristics between these groups are subtle, each group has its own unique programming and treatment needs.

The term lower functioning is applied to individuals who have fewer intellectual abilities compared with the general population and have IQs that approach 70, but they are not technically retarded. Notably different from peers with higher IQs, lower functioning implies diminished intellectual abilities but does not warrant a diagnosis of mental retardation. According to the American Association on Mental Retardation, the diagnosis of mental retardation should be applied only to individuals who have IQs below 70 and are deficient in two or more adaptive skills. Additionally, both of these conditions must be met before the individual turns 18. Unfortunately, many correctional facilities mistakenly classify individuals solely on the basis of IQ.

Distinguishing Characteristics

The term mentally ill is often confused with mental retardation but an important distinction exists. Those who are mentally ill suffer from brain dysfunctions that include disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, which are often treatable with medication such as Prozac and Clozarill. Unlike mental illness, retardation is not treatable with medication, but those who have this condition can learn skills and coping mechanisms that allow them to lead more satisfactory lives.

Mentally retarded and lower-functioning offenders often are grouped with mentally ill inmates for treatment and therapy. This may be preferable to placing them in the general inmate population, but research shows that a significant number of these inmates could benefit from programming oriented specifically to their needs and abilities. Earlier studies on prevalence rates indicated that approximately 9 percent of offenders suffered from mental retardation. However, more recent studies place the percentage of offenders who are mentally retarded between 1 percent and 4 percent. (1)

Recent litigation has determined the rights of mentally retarded offenders to be different from those of other offenders. On June 20, 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that mentally retarded inmates cannot be given the death penalty. The 1981 case of Green v. Johnson established that inmates younger than 22 have the right to receive special education if they are mentally retarded. In addition, the Americans With Disabilities Act requires all correctional agencies to set up procedures to screen for mentally retarded offenders and to initiate rehabilitation programs specifically for them.

Literature Review

Previous studies underscore the need to supervise lower-functioning offenders in a special manner. These offenders tend to be slower in a number of regards compared with the general inmate population. A study conducted by researcher Mary Ann Finn shows that mentally retarded offenders have more difficulty adjusting to the prison system, and that they adjust more slowly than the rest of the inmate population. (2) In fact, because they are slower, the Texas Council on Crime and Delinquency has determined that they are not fit for involvement in normal prison operations such as job-training classes. These offenders are capable of learning important skills and are able to hold a job, according to the National Institute of Corrections, but more time is necessary to acquire the appropriate skills. …