LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: This is the largest institution for the mentally ill in the state of Illinois and the second largest in the nation. It’s the Cook County Jail in Chicago. On any given day the complex holds about 10,000 inmates and on average one in four is suffering some kind of mental illness. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

SHERIFF TOM DART: I always tell people what in God’s name do you think is going to happen. I mean really when you think about it, the people who are horribly, horribly suffering from mental illness, who have exhausted all the opportunities with their families, who are on the street, where are they gonna go, where are they gonna go?

SEVERSON: They’re going to jail, hundreds of thousands of them. It’s happening all across the country. Pat Nolan is Vice President of the non-profit Christian ministry called Prison Fellowship.

Pat Nolan

PAT NOLAN: The sheriffs are the good guys in this. They don’t want these people in jail. It’s just they’ve become the last resort. We‘ve closed down every other option.

SEVERSON: Director of Corrections in Montgomery County, Maryland, Art Wallenstein.

ART WALLENSTEIN: Mental illness has become a major component of the correctional system in this country. And that was never intended and it’s bad public policy.

SEVERSON: First a little history.

PAT NOLAN: Beginning in the 70s, there was a move to empty out the state hospitals because they’d become terrible places and they closed them down.

ART WALLENSTEIN: And the community mental health system that was to replace large hospitals simply never materialized.

PAT NOLAN: Those weren't bad people, they weren’t criminals, they were sick and they needed help. The sheriff’s began complaining, saying they don’t belong in jail, please, do something about this.

SEVERSON: (to Omari Lewis) How many times do you think you've been incarcerated?


INMATE OMARI LEWIS: I know within the last ten years alone, if I totaled all my time up, I’ve been locked up half of the ten years.

SEVERSON: Omari Lewis is fortunate that he got thrown into the Montgomery County Jail, one of the more progressive. There’s a special pod here just for the mentally ill and a staff of trained therapists like Laurie Mombay who works with inmates like Omari.

LAURIE MOMBAY: When he came in he was quite unstable, psychotic and not medicated.

OMARI LEWIS: I have assaults on police officers, I have quite a few of those.

SEVERSON: Off your medications?


SEVERSON: Always off your medications?

OMARI LEWIS: Yeah, I’ve never really stayed on medications long.

PAT NOLAN: If they had the regular care of a doctor and treatment with the right medications, they can live wholesome, fulfilling lives. But if they get off those those medications, then they get into trouble, they end up on the street.

Corporal Christopher Walters

SEVERSON: Corrections officer Corporal Christopher Walters took special training to help him deal with mentally ill inmates.

CORPORAL CHRISTOPHER WALTERS: I’ve seen improvements from where they've come in really bad shape and where they get back on their medications, move out of here, go in the general population, get a job, do their time and get out of jail.

SEVERSON: His is not an easy job. Not long ago he had knee surgery after an inmate kicked him.

CORPORAL CHRISTOPHER WALTERS: He was saying that he was receiving radio frequencies through his brain from Bill Clinton saying to create a disturbance so he could escape.

SHERIFF TOM DART: This doesn’t make sense on multiple levels. Start with obviously the moral, ethical level, it doesn’t make any sense to house people who are mentally ill in jails and prisons, OK? But leap past that, and say OK, from a fiscal standpoint, it makes no sense.

SEVERSON: Incarceration is an expensive proposition, and Sheriff Dart says locking up the mentally ill is even more costly. There’s the medication, the special training for staff, and extra corrections officers to deal with inmates' psychotic episodes.

Sheriff Tom Dart

SHERIFF TOM DART: You take what is our average cost here which is about 143 dollars a day. It would defy reason and logic that it isn’t at least double, we think it’s more in the nature of triple the cost.

SEVERSON: One part of that cost, according to studies, is that mentally ill inmates stay in jail 5 times longer than other inmates and are 80% more likely to commit another crime when they get out.

SHERIFF TOM DART: About two months ago we had a person that we walked out of the jail. We tried to get hold of family members to come get him. Couldn’t get anybody to get him. He then wandered down the street, took all his clothes off and then picked a large ash tray and threw it through a plate glass window at the courthouse and wandered through the broken glass, covered in blood until we got there to grab him again and bring him back into custody.

PAT NOLAN: And the reason that the mentally ill take the drugs is it’s a way of self-medicating, to try to get past all the pain or the voices in their head, you know, whatever the demons that are inside them.

SEVERSON: Sheriff Dart has now put in place measures to help identify the mentally ill when they are first arrested, to treat them in jail and monitor them when they’re released, but that can only go so far, as he is the first to say. There is a program that has shown remarkable success in keeping the mentally ill out of jail called Pathways to Housing. Christy Respress is the Executive Director of Pathways in Washington, D.C.

Christy Respress

CHRISTY RESPRESS: So our housing and our support services combined cost less than it does to keep someone in jail or the hospital or the ER, or even the shelter.

SEVERSON: Since 2003 Pathways in Washington, D.C., which receives government and private funding, has placed over 500 mentally ill people in apartments. Most have criminal records, like Ellory Lampkin.

ELLORY LAMPKIN: Stealing, fraud. I’ve done a lot of things in my past and been arrested a lot of times.

SEVERSON: Pathways found Ellory on the street, asked him what he needed to stay out of trouble and, like most homeless, he said housing. Many programs offer housing, but only after the individual cleans up his or her act. Pathways offers housing first.

CHRISTY RESPRESS: And then we move the person directly, literally from the street into the apartment and all through that time there’s a team of support working with the person comprised of a psychiatrist, social workers, nurse, addiction specialists.

SEVERSON: It’s not easy moving from life behind bars and on the street to a life with responsibility.

Ellory Lampkin

ELLORY LAMPKIN: I would never imagined having money in my pocket, I would never imagined having a bank account or buying things that I want or going to the clothing store and buying clothes you know, those are things that I was not used to.

SEVERSON: Ellory has been off drugs and on medication now for 7 years.

ELLORY LAMPKIN: I’m going to say my attitude has changed a lot, because my bi-polar disorder had me as far as where my anger would go off on you at anytime, you know, you and I sitting here and having this conversation, and for some reason I would just go off on you, you know. But I don’t see that today.

SEVERSON: So far, 85% of Pathways clients, like Ellory, have stayed in the program and out of jail. In Pat Nolan’s view the way we treat the mentally ill is not only an ethical issue, it is a fundamental Christian value.

PAT NOLAN: You know, Jesus said I was naked and you clothed me, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was in prison and you visited me. These are our brothers and sisters. We do have an obligation to them.

SEVERSON: There is now legislation in Congress with bi-partisan support that would provide funding to states, counties and cities to expand mental health courts, crisis intervention, training, housing, and care as an alternative to jail for America’s mentally ill.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I'm Lucky Severson in Chicago.

Prisons and the Mentally Ill

It doesn’t make moral, ethical, or fiscal sense, according to Cook County sheriff Tom Dart, to house people who are mentally ill in jails and prisons.

  • HaroldAMaio

    Prisons and the Mentally Ill

    Your title is inappropriate.We, whom you
    diminish to a”the” mentally ill, are a very broad demographic, earning to the
    millions, holding every university degree and every professional, white, and
    blue collar job. Few of us will every see the inside of a jail.

  • Guest

    They can no longer be restrained or medicated in hospitals thanks to the ridiculous demands of patient advocate groups. They assault other patients and staff. Since that is the case, they belong in prison with the other hurters. Or, let their families take them home.

  • Marilyn Danos

    No they don’t, belong in jails, or prisons! Excuse me, ummmm if you were a
    mentally ill person – afraid, not on meds, having trouble with meds, without therapy,
    including in jail, or prison, and you are threatened, or bullied by other
    inmates, held in solitary confinement for 10 days +, which is an unsafe,
    unhealthy environment, all the way around, and detrimental to their health and
    wellness, period. YOU, wouldn’t protect yourself, or assault someone who is trying to hurt, or harm you? Rape you? Beat you? Do you know that the mentally ill, in jails and prison are more likely, to be victims, than perpetrators of violence? The greater percentage of jail and prison staff, including correctional officers are not trained in Crisis Intervention Training. Neither, are most local police officers, or state sheriffs, or federal officers. Patient advocacy groups aren’t the forerunners of non-treatment, or non-therapy, nor non-restraint of people out of control. They are the forerunners of
    better and fair treatment, for those mentally ill, inside and outside of the jail and prison systems. And, I suggest you get your facts straight! They assault other patients? Well, I’d say that the public safety officers, and staff aren’t trained in CIT. In the jails and prison systems – local, county, state and federal – people with mental illnesses, in the majority, are non-violent people, and charged with petty
    crimes, misdemeanors, Class 1 and 2 felonies, not murder, or child abuse, sexual assault of children or rape of women, or men, etc. Those who do commit domestic violence toward a partner are typically, also addicts (all types, and also mental health
    issues). Or, their partner hasn’t taken the time, to understand their loved one’s illnesses, and refuse to go for therapy to deal with and understand what their loved one is going through. Or, they have anger management issues themselves. There’s only so much time, when you have to stop acting like a victim, instead of getting help. The heinous crimes, I mentioned are typically, committed by people with anti-social personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder, which BTW are brain disorders, as well. And, some who commit, white and blue color crimes. Mentally ill people with these illnesses, aren’t born with, nor develop a conscience. They don’t develop empathy. These illness aren’t easily treatable, if at all. Get your facts straight, otherwise you sound unintelligent, and/or, nor well informed! Hope you don’t ever exhibit symptoms, of mental illness, or any of your family members, or friends. For in the former, you’d know exactly what it’s like to be diagnosed with a medical brain disorder. If, the latter,you would be, the least likely, family member, or friend to be a positive person, or encouraging influence, in a loved one’s life. Plus, you sound like you are indignant and self-righteous, at best. And, at the very worst, suffer from anger management issues. MR. or MS. GUEST it appears that you are employed in a profession you ought, not be, without specialized CIT training. So, GUEST, educate yourself, or cease from perpetuating stigma toward and discrimination against those with mental health issues. Plus, providing misinformation, assumptions, or biased opinions of mentally ill people, in or out of jail, or prison. Shame on you, for being such a dispassionate human being! In the US alone 1 in 4 people, are diagnosed, or yet to be diagnosed with a mental health issue, with, or without addictions. So, hmmmmm, your dispassionate attitude, may indicate, you may happen to be 1 of those 4. Get a grip, get some professional mental health help, and CIT training in your profession. Or, if a family member, stop acting like a victim, get help for yourself, and make sure that your loved in a hospital get the very best holistic mental and physical health care. Otherwise, you’ll continue to be an angry, self-righteous angry stressed out person.

  • Marilyn Danos

    HaroldAMaio, while you’re correct in part; perhaps in your case, and many who have bit been, nor ever will be incarcerated, Still, your comment later comment, diminishes and exacerbates, the mistreatment and unfair justice system, who incarcerate the mentally ill, with, or without addictions. And, for petty crime – misdemeanors, or class F1, or F2 felonies. And, further stigmatizes a vulnerable populace of people, including yourself, and those whom you care about and love, with mental health issues, and with, or without addictions (many types). Do you know that 65% of the populace of local, state, and federal jails and prisons are people with serious mental health issues, with, or without addictions? Not getting medical and mental health attention, or treatment, of any kind? Few of us? You sound like a person with a mental health issue, with, or without addictions, who likens life as a mentally ill person with, or without addictions, plus those taking anywhere from 5-18 different drugs for their illnesses; “as a walk in the park” And, you of all people ought to know and admit this. Many people with MHI’s use and abuse illegal substances, prescription pills, or talley, sniffing glue, or any number of ingested, or digested household products, as a form of mellowing out their anxiety. Or, taking drugs, and or products to continue the stimulation of manic episodes. Some, have concurrent illnesses in the form of chronic abuse of alcohol, and/or eating disorders, or self-injury, cutting themselves. Thus, co-morbidity. Many, people with mental health issues are in recovery and adapting with resilience. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, each and every day. Your comment, doesn’t take into account the majority of law enforcement personnel,hospital personnel, educators, or mental health professionals who do not receive Crisis Intervention Training. Which, educates personnel about mental health issues, with, or without addictions; how to diffuse situations, communicate effectively, and allowing the person with MHI/W, or WO addictions to be less afraid, or combative. And, thus be more inclined and willing to be escorted to the nearest hospital! Instead, taken to jail, awaiting trial, and spending from 1-5 years waiting for their court case. Which BTW is detrimental to overall health and wellness, in every sense of the word. Also, not all mental health professionals, recognize, nor listen to family members, about their loved ones addiction to substances, of any kind. So, as a result they aren’t medically treated for this, or proper therapy for comorbidity. Plus, loved ones, don’t always do what is best to reduce negative stress, in their own lives, or for their own overall health and wellness, including seeking help to deal with their loved one, or their own addictions; incapable of doing what is truly best in their own health and wellness, let alone the very “BEST” thing for their loved one.

  • HaroldAMaio

    You may of course direct “the” mentally ill and “stigma” just realize iI is you directing both.

  • me

    thank you. During a severe episode of manic/depressive anxiety attack, I found myself on base not at the e.r. as I thought I drove to.while housed in county jail I was treated and medicated for my anxiety attacks. after one year they offered a plea bargin to assault on a police officer. my sentence was one year in jail (done), and follow up mental health care. I feel S.C. took care of me as more a patient than criminal. I was hallucinating that nite and hurt or even touched another person. years have passed, I’m on contious mental health care and drugs and acting normally.My only regret is I’m a felon now and not free. can anything be done to reduce my plea?