Cook County Jail’s Impending Mental Health Crisis


Last week, we brought you a story about an Ohio sheriff who is refusing to house violent, mentally ill arrestees in his jail until they’re treated at a hospital or mental health clinic. “We’re not going to be a dumping ground anymore for these people,” Sheriff Drew Alexander said.

He’s not alone. Just this weekend, the Chicago News Cooperative reported on Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s increasing frustration with how his jail has become “the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois.” He estimates that 2,000 of his 11,000 inmates have a serious mental illness. By comparison, a large, state-owned mental health facility in the state only has about 600 beds.

According to NPR, Cook County Jail is one of the country’s three largest psychiatric facilities; the other two are Los Angeles County Jail and Rikers Island.

But the situation is likely about to get worse: To save $2 million, Chicago plans to shut down six of its 12 mental health facilities by April. Sheriff Dart predicts that the move “will have direct consequences for us in my general jail population.”

“And then there’s the humane side of it,” he said. “Not treating people with mental illness is bad enough, but treating them like criminals? Please, what have we become?”

Over the past 10 years, FRONTLINE has produced two films on the influx of mentally ill inmates into Ohio’s jails and prisons. The first, 2005′s The New Asylums, is a rare glimpse into the state’s efforts to better care for inmates with serious mental health issues. Filmed five years later, The Released looks at what happens after mentally ill prisoners complete their sentences.

Photo: Rows of coiled barbed wire mark the perimeter of the Maximum Security Dormitory at the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
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