Sad: America’s Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail

© Charles Rex Arbogast / AP All new detainees at the Cook County Jail go through mental health evaluations before their bond hearings. (Jim Young / Reuters)
© Charles Rex Arbogast / AP All new detainees at the Cook County Jail go through mental health evaluations before their bond hearings. (Jim Young / Reuters)

It was 9 o’clock in the morning at Cook County Jail, but in the subterranean holding cells where dozens await their turn before a judge, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Pre-bail processing here takes place entirely underground. A labyrinth of tunnels connects the jail’s buildings to one another and to the Cook County Criminal Court. Signs and directions are intentionally left off the smooth concrete corridors to hinder escape attempts. Even those who run the jail get lost down here from time to time, they told me.

No natural light reaches the tunnels. Human voices echoed off the featureless walls, creating an omnipresent din. On this Monday, when those arrested over the weekend in Chicago and its suburbs filled the fenced cages, that din became a roar. Many inmates were standing, sitting, or milling around. But some—perhaps two or three per holding pen—were lying on the floor, asleep.

If you can sleep through this, you’re fighting far greater demons than the commotion outside. And the doctors here want to know what they are.

At Cook County Jail, an estimated one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. At least 400,000 inmates currently behind bars in the United States suffer from some type of mental illness—a population larger than the cities of Cleveland, New Orleans, or St. Louis—according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives.

“This is typically what I see everyday,” said Elli Petacque-Montgomery, a psychologist and the deputy director of mental health policy for the sheriff’s department. She showed me a medical intake form filled with blue pen scribbles. Small boxes listed possible illnesses: manic depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and so on. The forms are designed to help jail officials identify which inmates have mental illnesses as early as possible. Details from four new inmates could fit on a single sheet. She showed me a completed one. “Of those four,” she said, pointing to the descriptors, “I have three mentally ill people.”

On a nearby counter, a nurse took down notes for a Hispanic inmate with an injured eye. A white inmate with dreadlocks wearing a Chicago Bears jersey—they had defeated the San Francisco 49ers the night before—stood next to them, translating his fellow inmate’s Spanish for the nurse.

What sort of crimes had these people been arrested for? One kid on the list had a tendency toward aggression, but officials emphasized that the overwhelming majority were “crimes of survival” such as retail theft (to find food or supplies) or breaking and entering (to find a place to sleep). For those with mental illness, charges of drug possession can often indicate attempts at self-medication. “Even the drugs of choice will connect to what the mental illness is,” Petacque-Montgomery told me. People with severe depression might use cocaine “to lift their mood.” Those who hear voices and have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder often turn to heroin to regulate their sleep. Marijuana use “is just constant for kids with ADD and depression,” she notes. “I’ll ask, ‘Can you eat or sleep without this?’ and they’ll say no.’”

Chicagoans with mental illness end up in jail through a chain of small decisions by different local officials. Police officers can choose to take a mentally ill person home, to the hospital, to a shelter—or to jail. Prosecutors can choose whether or not to not bring charges. Judges can choose to set higher or lower bail amounts, thereby determining whether poorer defendants can avoid pre-trial detention and keep their jobs and housing. But once a person reaches the jail, the local sheriff can’t simply decline to take them into custody.

In Chicago, that responsibility falls to Tom Dart, the 52-year-old sheriff of Cook County. Dart supervises about 6,900 sworn officers in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. His jurisdiction encompasses the roughly 5.3 million people living in and around Chicago. As sheriff, Dart is also responsible for Cook County Jail, the largest single-site jail in the United States. Because so many people with mental illness pass through his custody, Cook County Jail can also be considered the largest mental-health facility in the nation. The jail has been run accordingly since Dart’s election in 2006. All incoming staff, including the 300 to 400 new correctional officers hired annually, now receive 60 hours of advanced mental-illness treatment training. His officers can’t simply be guards anymore, Dart emphasizes. “You have to be a doctor. You have to be a nurse. You have to be a social worker. You have to be all of these things.”

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Source: The Atlantic | Matt Ford

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