Clinical Psychologist To Head Chicago Jail Where One-Third of Inmates Are Mentally Ill
Chicago’s Cook County Jail, America’s largest single-site jail, just appointed clinical psychologist Nneka Jones Tapia as executive director — a fitting choice since one-third of the inmate population is mentally ill, Huffington Post Crime reports.
Tapia is the first mental health professional to ever command a large jail. Cook County Jail holds an average of about 9,000 inmates daily and 25 to 35 percent of its population suffer from mental illness. That figure was ballooned in recent years as the number of mental health facilities dropped.
Since the 1960s, the number of beds available by state-run Illinois psychiatric facilities fell from 35,000 to 1,500, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
“When a third of your population is mentally ill, you sure as heck better have someone who understands that at the top,” said Dart.
So who better to manage the facility than a psychologist?
“I think I can bring a wealth of knowledge to the staff in understanding the inmates,” Tapia said in an interview.
According to Tapia, mentally ill inmates are often charged with low-level, non-violent crimes such as drug possession or trespassing. Some purposely try to get incarcerated to receive treatment.
Criminal justice reform organizations praised the move to appoint Tapia:
“Having someone in a leadership position with those kinds of credentials makes a lot of sense because so many of the issues in the jail have to do with mental illness,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association.
Jamie Mondics, spokeswoman for the Treatment Advocacy Center, said that the focus on mental illness is a “great step.” “We should be keeping people with mental illnesses out of jails and prisons in the first place,” she said.
Tapia, who has worked with the Cook County sheriff’s office since 2013 as a mental health strategist, is poised to take the reigns as executive director on May 26.