Nneka Jones Tapia, the former executive director of Cook County Jail, knows what it’s like to have a parent behind bars. She remembers weekly visits as a child to share Sunday dinner with her father, who was incarcerated for several years for possession of drugs.
“I was fortunate that both of my parents made sure I still had that bond with my dad,” she said, adding that her siblings and mother created a strong support system during those years. “I recognize now as an adult, had it not been for the support system ... that I could’ve very easily fallen prey to some of the risk factors that children with incarcerated parents often experience.”
Some of those risk factors, according to a recent study, include engaging in unhealthy behaviors and skipping needed health care.
Jones Tapia left Cook County Jail at the end of March. Now, she’s leading a new initiative at Chicago Beyond, an organization dedicated to addressing youth equity. In her role, Jones Tapia will address the mental wellness of children whose parents are incarcerated as part of the group’s newly launched Leadership Venture initiative.
Described in a press release as a “fellowship for high-potential community leaders,” the program will invest in people like Jones Tapia who are “focused on tackling significant challenges facing Chicago’s youth.”
Chicago Beyond CEO Liz Dozier said Jones Tapia was chosen for the 18-month fellowship because of her expertise and experiences. “We have someone who is leading this effort who has firsthand experience (in) what this effort is trying to impact,” said Dozier, whose own father was incarcerated when she was young. “Nneka has this incredible background not only having experienced that as a child, but then having led what some have said is the largest mental health facility in the country – Cook County Jail.”
Jones Tapia served as executive director of the jail for nearly three years before beginning a fellowship with the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago this past spring. Before being named as jail warden, she served as the first assistant executive director in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, where she oversaw mental health strategy at the Cook County Jail. Prior to that, she worked as the chief psychologist at Cermak Health Services, the county jail’s onsite medical and mental health provider.
Both Dozier and Jones Tapia described one another as “kindred spirits” because of their shared experiences and efforts to create equity in marginalized communities.
As she settles into her new role, Jones Tapia has been speaking with community members about how to best address mental wellness.
“The most important players have been youth themselves. I’ve been engaged with quite a few youth, particularly on the South Side of Chicago, but really representative of all of Chicagoland,” said Jones Tapia. “I’ve been speaking with people in the community just trying to better understand what is out there now, and where gaps may lay and how we can begin to fill those gaps.”
While Jones Tapia will allow for these conversations to guide how to best address the issue, Dozier said she hopes Chicago Beyond can make an impact around mental wellness, “specifically for youth who are most affected by having an incarcerated parent. … There can be a light at the end of the tunnel for them in terms of their own health and wellness.”
Note: This story was originally published July 17, 2018. It will be updated with video of our conversation with Jones Tapia and Dozier following our Thursday evening broadcast.