60 Minutes – Cook County Jail – The largest mental health facility in the United States #MentalHealthMonth

Tom Dart CBS News

May is Mental Health Month. The three largest mental health facilities in the United States are jails.

By Debra Muzikar

Last night Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes profiled Tom Dart, The Sheriff of Cook County and the person who oversees the largest mental health facility in the United States – Cook County Jail.

The three largest mental health providers in the United States are correctional facilities – Cook County Jail in Illinois, Los Angeles County Jail, and Rikkers in New York.

On the60 Minutes episode Sheriff Dart said 50 percent of those behind bars shouldn’t be there. One-third of the inmates have mental illness. Many can’t afford to post bail. The jail with a population of 7.500 has become a dumping ground for the poor and mentally ill.

What makes Cook County Jail unique is that Sheriff Dart is treating the jail as a psychiatric facility. Therapeutic interventions include chess lessons, photography, drumming, cooking lessons, group therapy and visits with psychiatrists. The Sheriff has redefined law enforcement positions to have mental health positions. A psychologist is the Warden. Those coming into the jail are screened for mental illness and they will receive medication if needed while serving their time.

Somewhere along the line we have criminalized mental illness. Although autism is not a mental illness, autistic behaviors can land an adult or even a child in jail. A couple of weeks ago Ron Sandison posted an interview with the mom of the 10-year old who was arrested at a public school in Florida.

According to the ARC’s web page on criminal justice, “While those with intellectual disability comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population, with an even greater number of those in juvenile facilities and in jails (Petersilia, 2000).”

What 60 Minutes did not discuss in last night’s segment is that jails and prisons are money makers. The current administration’s dismantling of entitlements will most likely result in more people with mental illness or developmental disabilities in jails and prisons. While this may be beneficial for corporations who own many private jails and prisons across the United States, it certainly is not therapeutic or beneficial to those who may land in one of these facilities.

Although I’m heartened to see a Sheriff who has a proactive viewpoint, many in public jails and prisons across the country don’t receive adequate care. Those in private jails, where profit is the bottom line, receive even less adequate care. Often they are denied medication and isolated. Those incarcerated are seen as less than human.

President Jimmy Carter over 40 years ago said those with mental illness were the “most underserved group in this nation.” Unfortunately little has changed.

A link to the 60 Minutes segment is here.

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