#35: The Criminalization of Mental Illness


The largest provider of services to the mentally ill in America is not a health care provider – it is the criminal justice system. And on any given day, Chicago's Cook County Jail is actually the largest mental health institution in the entire country.

With a steady population of incarcerated persons in need of mental health services, how does one of the biggest jails in the U.S. cope? We talk to Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County. He runs the Cook County jail, and for more than five years, he has fundamentally changed how the justice system in Chicago treats the mentally ill.

Sheriff Tom Dart runs the facility, and he's radically changed how the system in Chicago treats the mentally ill.

Get a peek inside the Cook County Jail in 2013  with 60 Minutes here.

AVID Prison Project’s report, “Locked Down and Locked Up: Segregation of Inmates with Mental Illness," found that the common prison practice of isolating an inmate -- usually referred to as "seg" -- does not decrease violence or make prisons safer. Mentally ill persons are especially vulnerable. Between 80,000 to 100,000 inmates are currently placed in small single person cells for 22 to 24 hours per day, for days, if not months or years at a time. 

In the United States, there are at least three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals, according to the Treatment and Advocacy Center’s 2014 report, “More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States.” They used previously unpublished data from 2004-2005.

The ABA Journal profiled Sheriff Dart and his part in revolutionizing Cook County Jail in December 2016, citing the facility's photography, drumming and art classes.

“He’s the type of guy that gets ideas when he is brushing his teeth.” -Warden Nneka Jones Tapia