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Clinical Psychologist To Head Chicago's Cook County Jail


Now a sign of just how entwined the criminal justice system is with mental illness. Next week, a clinical psychologist will take over as head of one of the country's largest jails - Cook County Jail in Chicago. On any given day, it houses some 9,000 inmates. Prison officials estimate that a third of them are mentally ill. Nneka Jones Tapia will become the executive director. She's been overseeing mental health strategy at the jail for a couple of years, and I asked her to describe the kinds of mental illness she's seen there.

NNEKA JONES TAPIATAPIA: A number of individuals coming into our custody have mood disorders, so some of them are coming with depression, bipolar disorder. The most outrageous factor are those that are coming in that are floridly psychotic and requiring stabilization. And while, you know, the numbers here at the jail for the general population may be dwindling, the numbers for the mental health population are not.

BLOCK: Explain why you think that it is. Why are those numbers growing?

TAPIA: You know, a part of it is due to a lack of services in the community, particularly psychiatric services. The city of Chicago is starting to work with us, but, you know, their history of closing the six mental health clinics has done us a disservice, and the number of hospitals that are willing to take people with mental illnesses is dwindling. So I believe those two factors weigh heavily.

BLOCK: I have seen Cook County Jail described as the largest mental health institution in the country on any given day. It's a pretty shocking thing to think about.

TAPIA: It's a travesty. You know, when you think about where you would want your loved one to receive mental health treatment, I don't think Cook County Jail would come to mind, but from the sheriff's perspective, you know, if they're going to come here then let's offer them something - some resources so that they can, you know, better navigate the word and hopefully not come back into our custody. So we have a number of programs that we've developed through the vision of the sheriff to try to give people a fighting chance once they're out of our custody.

BLOCK: You're talking about Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart.


BLOCK: And what kinds of programs?

TAPIA: So, for example, the development of the mental health transition center. We now, five days a week, bus over about a hundred inmates from the jail compound, and we provide them with mental health treatment in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy. And we give them job readiness skills, provide them with education - all the tools that we found that individuals need to make them as successful as possible.

BLOCK: And are you seeing any turnaround in the numbers of inmates who are coming back to jail?

TAPIA: Of those that are participating in the mental health treatment center, absolutely. So we have had about 40 detainees that have been released that have gone through our program. And out of that 40, about a third of them are pursuing education, which they started here, and the remainder of them are gainfully employed. And what we found is that the support system that we give individuals while they're in custody can't stop when they're released.

BLOCK: Do you find that there are some people who are deliberately getting arrested, going back to jail specifically because they know they'll get medication, they'll get treatment for mental illness there that they can't get anywhere else?

TAPIA: I've heard that story time and time again. Individuals that come in and out of our custody will often tell us that they did something on purpose because they know that they will receive treatment when they come into our facility, which is a shame. You can set your seasonal clock on when some of them are coming in, and it will often be for petty offenses. Like, one young lady that I am thinking of now stole a loaf of bread. She was hungry, yes, but she knew - she stood there and waited for the police to pick her up.

BLOCK: Do think it sends a message? Is it symbolic, really, that you, a clinical psychologist, will be heading the Cook County Jail?

TAPIA: Oh, yes, it sends a powerful message. You know, law enforcement was never meant to handle mental illness - severe mental illness. But our staff do a tremendous job and I can only continue to support them in that. So undoubtedly, the sheriff thought of that when he considered me for this role.

BLOCK: Well, Nneka Jones Tapia, thanks for talking with us and best of luck in your new job.

TAPIA: Thank you. I greatly appreciate it.

BLOCK: Nneka Jones Tapia has been named the next executive director of Cook County Jail in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.