Mentally ill jail population doubled since 2006; now 20%

By Mary Cirincione

mental illness
Cook County Board of Commissioners held a hearing Wednesday to discuss the status of mental health care inside Chicago. John Fritchey, 12th District Commissioner, hears testimony from Michi Marshall, wife of Brandon Marshall, wide receiver for the Chicago Bears who suffers from borderline personality disorder. The Marshalls co-founded the Brandon Marshall Foundation to raise awareness for mental illness in America’s youth.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six Chicago mental health clinics in 2012. Elected officials, law enforcement and mental health advocates are now saying there’s a strong correlation between these closures and the number of mentally ill inmates in custody at Cook County Jail.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart brought attention to the issue this past summer when he publicly proclaimed Cook County Jail as the county’s largest mental health hospital.

Nneka Jones, a licensed clinical psychologist in charge of Cook County Jail mental health services, testified Wednesday that Cook County Department of Corrections houses 2,000 mentally ill inmates, 20 percent of the inmate population. “Out of that 20 percent, about 16 percent of them are in for misdemeanor offenses. Those are individuals that we would like to see better served in our community as opposed to within our correctional institution.”

The Cook County Board held a hearing to more fully understand the status of mental health in the county, as well as its associated costs. Jones was among local, state and national advocates who provided testimony.

Dr. Connie Mennella, chairwoman of correctional health at Cermak Health Services, relayed disturbing statistics. “Despite the jail population decreasing over the last few years, the mental health population has not decreased. We think we are screening better, but we know we are not seeing a decrease in mental health populations as one might expect when you have decrease in overall population.”

Mennella described her office’s efforts to tackle mental health issues as the daily provider of health care to Cook County Corrections detainees. “Every single man and woman that comes into the jail gets screened. They get screened for general health and mental health conditions. We then move them forward in our system and continue their treatment.”

John Fritchey, commissioner for the 12th District, asked Mennella whether her office is checking to see if there’s a reduction in recidivism when inmates receive appropriate mental health treatment. “I know it’s a goal of the justice health initiative to track those numbers,” Mennella said, but she doesn’t have those findings yet because collecting the necessary data will likely take a year or more.

Jones said that when she began working with Cook County Corrections in 2006, the number of mentally ill inmates hovered around 1,000 — meaning it has doubled in the past eight years.

“While I cannot draw a direct cause and effect relationship between the closure of mental health facilities in the community and the increase in the number of mentally ill inmates we have in custody, I do believe that there is a correlation. We have not only seen an increase in the number of mentally ill inmates coming into our custody, we have also seen them coming in in a sicker state. Our mental health infirmaries are often over capacity,” Jones said.

Commissioner Fritchey assigned blame to the Mayor’s Office for its clinic closures, suggesting that the failure of the city to provide proper treatment for the mentally ill increased the workload for Chicago law enforcement.

“The interplay between the various levels of government, when it comes to providing mental health screening and services and treatment, is essential. And if that interplay fails at any one point, it falls on the other levels of government to try to make up for that. And the implications are far-reaching from our health system to our corrections system to our social services,” he said.

Steven Glass, director of managed care for Cook County Health and Hospitals System, said the county can save money on treatment by taking back the burden for mental health care from the jail. “Does providing mental health and substance abuse care through CountyCare [Medicaid] versus the jail save the county money? Absolutely, without a doubt.” Glass estimated that the cost of providing mental health and substance abuse services to a CountyCare member will cost about $7,800 per year.

Fritchey said he intends to continue the discussion on mental illness in Cook County, and will call for additional hearings in coming months.

Requests for comment from the Mayor’s Office were not returned.