Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says that society has cast aside the mentally ill, which is one reason why the prisons are overcrowded in Illinois.
“Society doesn’t want to fund mental health [programs],” he said.
The Cook County Jail is currently the largest mental health facility in the U.S. with 30-35 percent of its 9,000 daily population living with a serious mental illness, Dart said. Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed in his first budget to consolidate the city’s mental health clinics to save money. The City Council unanimously approved and in 2012, a dozen of Chicago’s mental health facilities were cut in half.
Dart said that many of the inmates end up in prison for nonviolent offenses like not getting off a CTA train or bus because it’s cold outside or stealing food or clothes because they have nothing. In 2013, 1,265 men were placed in the mental health unit on low-level drug-related offenses. With the recent funding cuts for programs that have helped those individuals in the past, many end up in the streets with no help.
“What is the one place where they can’t say no? Clinics can close the doors, but I can’t say no,” Dart said. He takes the time to get to know the men in the mental health unit. He said they are good people suffering from an illness of some sort, yet they’re treated like criminals.
“They shouldn’t be in jail, they need to be in a treatment facility,” Dart said. “[Jail's] the wrong place for them; it’s a sneaky way to criminalize the mentally ill.”
Bob Carolla, a spokesman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that people will end up in the prison system if they don’t have access to “adequate and effective” mental health treatment.
“In [the] last few years we’ve seen massive state budget cuts in mental health services, so that makes the problem only greater, with more people being funneled into jail,” he said.
“The challenge is to reverse the trend and get people treatment when they need it, early on so you avoid those kinds of bad outcomes to begin with.”
Over the last five years, many of Cook County’s officers have been receiving training to help them better treat those individuals who have a mental illness. Those who went through the training are now certified in advance mental health.
Sergeant Charles Brazelton has worked at the correctional facility for nearly 20 years and he said his job is a difficult one, but he is grateful for the training. He oversees 14 officers.
“It’s not easy to just ask [the inmates] what’s wrong because they’re not going to tell you,” Brazelton said. “Either they don’t know that they’re having a problem or they’re so used to being in that mental state that it seems normal to them, but with the training that we get, we’re able to sit these guys down, ask them a series of questions and we can determine, okay does this guy need medical help or does he need psychological help; most of the time it’s both.”
Sol, 53, is an inmate in the mental health unit. The correctional facility requested that the Chicago Defender only use the first names of inmates interviewed for this article. He is bipolar. Before arriving 22 months ago, he said he wasn’t getting the help he needed, partially because he was in denial that anything way wrong.
“I tell the doctors, I don’t have anger, I have rage; I really didn’t pay it any attention until my sister was trying to tell me when I was just home last time, you need to see somebody,” Sol said.
He said he tried to get help from a community clinic, but after being turned away for various reasons, multiple times, he gave up.
Many of the men who end up in the county’s clutches, awaiting trial, found their way there because either their communities lacked proper resources that could have prevented them from committing petty crimes or they have no loved on to direct them to the resources, said Dr. Nneka Jones, 1st assistant director of the jail and a psychologist.
“A lot of them live in areas where there are scarce to no community treatments available,” she said. “You heard about situations where the mayor was going to close different schools and the problems that parents had about their children crossing gang lines, well you experience similar fears with the mental health population; they may not know how to travel to the other agencies.”
“The only thing they know is going to a hospital and by then it’s to the point where they are going to need extensive care and that’s when you see them being arrested,” Jones continued.
While under the supervision of the jail, the detainees are given medication that they may have been missing outside. There are also group sessions with counselors. It’s crucial that the inmates receive discharge information, which Jones said starts when they first arrive. They learn where to go to get help with their illness and they get assistance with setting up the appointments with partners such as the Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC). There is a 24-hour help hotline that detainees are given before they leave in case they have any questions about resources.
All of the officers are trained in spotting any unusual behavior, which can be an indicator of a breakdown. The biggest indicator is an extreme mood change, Brazelton said.
Right before the interview, he had to excuse himself because an inmate was shouting and Brazelton said he needed to calm him down right away before the situation exploded. Scenarios like that happen on a daily basis, he said. That attention to detail is what helps reduce the amount of outbreaks, Brazelton said.
Jones recommends that family and friends who suspect something wrong with a loved one look for any odd behavior outside of the norm and to not be afraid to ask questions.
Marc, 35, is bipolar like Sol and said he was locked up for disorderly conduct. He said taking his medicine balances him, but if he stops, the emotions skyrocket again.
“I’m pretty normal when I’m on the medication, but I get real hostile if I haven’t had my meds. I have mood swings, ” he said.
To bring awareness to how the mentally ill have been criminalized in society, the Cook County Jail hosted a rally May 2. The jail is currently the largest mental health facility in the U.S. with 2,500 mentally ill inmates, according to county jail officials. The jail holds about 9,000 detainees daily. The goal of the event was to educate people on the issue, as well as highlight the positive support and help the inmates are receiving.