In efforts to manage the increasing numbers of inmates with mental illness, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart converted the former Boot Camp facility on the jail grounds into a Mental Health Transition Center. It's considered the only one of its kind in the country, where mentally ill inmates, often low-level offenders, can receive therapy and job readiness training.
Today, the population of the Cook County Jail is more than 9,000 inmates. Of them, 31 percent self-identify as mentally ill.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has frequently drawn attention to the problem, now says he's working to fix it. He started a Mental Health Transition Center on the grounds of the jail.
It began just a couple of months ago, and so far 34 inmates have used the program. For the first six weeks, inmates receive therapy five days a week for two-and-a-half hours, to change their negative thinking and criminal behavior patterns. Then, for the second six weeks, they add in some job readiness training.
One participant, Willie, turned 47 years old while in Cook County Jail for a drug delivery charge.
“I learned how to cope with my inner thinking, not reacting” he said on how the program has made a difference for him. “Cause I always reacted; never thought about what I was going to do.”
The Mental Health Transition Center at the Cook County Jail is still in its infancy, and experts believe the only one of its kind in the country.
“As one of the largest jails in the country, I think other systems will definitely be looking into programs like this to see if it’s something that can reduce the jail population,” Matt Epperson, an assistant professor of social service administration at University of Chicago, said. “This is not a Chicago problem. It’s very concentrated in Chicago, but this is a national problem that lots of our jails are dealing with.”
It's a problem Sheriff Dart has been sounding the alarm on for the past couple of years—a persistent increase in the number of inmates with mental illness.
“My whole notion is that we need to change the way that we’re thinking about it, and the way they’re thinking about it,” Dart said. “The underlying reason they’re here is not that they’re criminal, it’s that they’ve got a mental illness. So we shouldn’t be treating them like criminals. So let’s put them in an environment that is the least like a correctional setting. That’s it.”
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Many of these inmates wrestle with mood disorders and addiction. But some jail or prison inmates face bigger challenges, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. That's why, Dart says, he developed this transition center.
“So when people come into the system, we now interview them,” Sheriff Dart said. “We treat them like clients—figure out ways to put them in another setting other than jail. … The whole point of the transition center is on the backend, to give them the skills so they may leave here, having been locked up for sometimes for a while, they can go back and transition in the community.”
Epperson suspects Dart and his transition center are on the right track to developing interventions for people with mental illness, who end up in the criminal justice system. He said typical interventions only treat the mental illness, but there are other factors that coincide.
“Research is showing that there are criminal risk factors,” Epperson said. “Most of that research has been done on people in the criminal justice system without mental illness. But recent research is showing that these criminal risk factors are just as prevalent in people with mental illnesses.”
He said the treatment for both criminal behavior and mental illness can be delivered at the same time in the same places.
“I would argue that they should both be in mental health settings but also in the criminal justice side,” Epperson said. “I think for too long these two systems have often argued about whose responsibility it is to really work with the population, and I would say that there’s plenty of work to go around.”
Cook County Jail inmates here said they’ve already noticed a difference in themselves.
“I got to stay away from people, places, and things,” Cook County Jail inmate David said. “Find new friends, a support group. I got to want it.”
Not everyone knows how much longer they'll be in the Cook County jail, but their hope is that when released, they'll have the right tools to avoid coming back.
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