The Cook County Jail in Chicago is one of the largest county jails in the United States, holding up to 9,000 inmates on any given day. It is estimated that approximately one third of these inmates are mentally ill. Indeed, Cook County officials have stated that the jail is, in effect, the largest mental health facility in Illinois.
Unfortunately, and as I have written in other posts, it is not unusual for a jail or prison facility to hold such a large number of mentally ill inmates. What is unusual at Cook County, however, is the fact that the new director of the jail is a Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia. Dr. Jones Tapia is apparently no stranger to the issues of mentally ill jail inmates or the situation in Cook County, having previously been in charge of the jail’s four divisions that house its large population of inmates with mental health issues.
Statistics show that the overall inmate population at the jail may be falling; however, the number of inmates with mental health issues either remains constant or increases. These inmates suffer from the entire array of mental health problems including, without limitation, depression and bipolar disorder. Some of them are floridly psychotic and require stabilization.
The reasons for the large percentage of mentally ill inmates at Cook County are similar to those at other jail and prison facilities throughout the country. Communities lack psychiatric services, and are closing local clinics. Additionally, the number of hospitals that are willing to take patients with mental illnesses is dropping.
Further, many mentally ill individuals actually commit crimes with an eye toward getting arrested because it is the only way they can receive treatment and medication for their mental illness. These include individuals who purposely go in and out of jail repeatedly for the express purpose of receiving treatment that they cannot receive anywhere else.
The Cook County Jail is somewhat unique, not only because of its decision to appoint a mental health professional as its director, but also because it apparently has a fairly extensive set of services in place to assist inmates with mental health issues. What is billed as a mental health transition center provides inmates with mental health treatment, as well as job readiness skills and education. Upon release, many of the program’s participants continue with their education or become gainfully employed. Statistics show that this program has reduced the recidivism rate, at least among this portion of the inmate population. Not surprisingly, jail officials have observed that the support these inmates receive while in custody must continue when they are released.
It is significant that a large, prominent county jail has selected a Clinical Psychologist as its director. The downside is that the line between the mental health system and the criminal justice system will continue to be blurred, regardless of the fact that the latter is not equipped to service the mentally ill. The upside is that this decision will hopefully call additional attention to the fact that our jails and prisons continue to house numerous inmates with a full array of mental health problems and issues, that these problems and issues almost certainly led to their involvement with the criminal justice system, and that so long as these inmates remain in custody, our jails and prisons must be able to respond to their needs with effective treatment and counseling.