By Aamer Madhani
May 19, 2015
CHICAGO — With prisons across the country struggling to deal with inmates with mental illness, officials here have turned to a clinical psychologist to lead the nation's second-largest jail.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced on Tuesday he has tapped Nneka Jones Tapia, 37, who currently oversees mental health strategy, to serve as the jail's executive director.
Tapia's appointment marks the first time a mental health professional has been appointed to head a major U.S. jail.
Cook County, which houses about 9,000 inmates on a daily basis, estimates roughly a third of its inmates are dealing with mental illness.
Dart has been outspoken in his concern about the criminal justice system's efforts to address the issue. In an interview with USA TODAY last year, he called the constant cycle of arrest and incarceration, mostly involving minor offenses and poor people who are unable to make bail, as the "criminalization of the mentally ill.''
"Jails have become the largest psychiatric institutes in (nearly) all of the states," Dart told USA TODAY on Tuesday, after announcing Tapia's appointment. "What a horrific statement that is about our society. Nneka is phenomenal. But when you have as much as 35% of your population that is mentally ill, it would probably be dereliction of duty not to have this issue have a high profile in your operations."
In 44 states, the largest institution housing people with severe psychiatric diseases is a prison or jail, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a group that pushes to eliminate barriers to treatment for the severely mentally ill.
The issue is stark in Illinois, particularly the Chicago area. The number of beds in Illinois-run psychiatric hospitals has fallen to about 1,500 from a peak of 35,000 in the 1960s, according to Dart's office.
The problem of mentally ill people filling up Cook County's jails became so persistent that Dart last year turned to Twitter to tally the cases. In one of the most disturbing cases, Dart said the jail had to outfit a 43-year-old man suffering bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with a hockey mask and thick gloves to keep from gouging his remaining eye out. He had ripped his other eye out of the socket before arriving at the jail because he said he did not want to see evil.
Nationally, police encounters with people who are mentally ill and/or emotionally disturbed are increasingly directing resources away from traditional public safety roles. It is not uncommon at many police departments, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, for more than 20% of daily calls for service to involve people who are mentally disturbed.
Tapia, who first came to the jail as an intern in 2006, has worked with the sheriff's department on mental health issues since 2013.
"The essence of a correctional institution was always supposed to be about correcting behavior, and I don't think we have ever done that," Tapia said. "We're trying to change that."