Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says that the Illinois mental health system “is so screwed up that I’ve become the largest mental health care provider in the state of Illinois.”
Dart’s statement comes at a time when the state is planning to shut down six of its twelve mental health centers by the end of April. Though the reduction is expected to save the state 2 million dollars, critics believe the costs to everything from prisons to emergency rooms will far exceed the short term savings. Not to mention the costs to those suffering from mental illness – costs that will manifest themselves both economically and otherwise.
Of the 11,000 or so prisoners at the Cook County Jail, Mr. Dart estimates that 2,000 people suffer from mental health problems. Many of these 2,000 are jailed for minor crimes but commit new infractions due to stress and confusion and see their short sentences run on and on. Corrections officers spend far more time with their mentally ill charges than with the general population, and receive only limited training.
Corrections officers and administrators don’t want people with mental illness to be in jail. People with mental illness don’t want to be in jail. People in jail don’t want people with mental illness in jail. So why are they in jail?
“Because [the police department] is the only place left to call,” suggests Amy Watson, associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Fancy that: a situation in which instead of addressing a problem, we choose to hide it behind bars.
Resources for people struggling with mental illness were already scarce. Cutting them in half means that waiting lists will be longer, access will be more limited, and existing services will be over-extended.
And when the mentally ill are incarcerated? Problems abound for prisoners and officers alike. Incarcerated people who are mentally ill are more likely to refuse to follow orders or even act out violently against CO’s. In response, CO’s are more likely to throw mentally ill people in solitary confinement, which frequently exacerbates the problems they are already experiencing. In fact, mentally ill people in solitary confinement make up the majority of prison suicides. This is especially sad when one considers that these suicidal people are often in jail in the first place because of simple drug possession or vagrancy.
And if they are released, they typically leave with up to two weeks of their medication. In addition to the challenge of finding a health provider who can renew their prescription, many of them are uninsured, and will have to wait at least 45 days for Medicaid approval. And that’s just one aspect of the enormous challenge that mentally ill people face upon re-entry. Thus it is no surprise that mentally ill folks are among the most likely to recidivate.
Check out the NYT article here.
Or hear from people with mental illnesses during a similar reduction in services that Texas went through a year ago in this video from the Texas Tribune.