By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
In a collaborative effort with private donors, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Supportive Release Center (SRC) on July 26. The innovative new program will provide short-term, critical services to people with high needs in an attempt to lower the jail’s recidivism rate. Located at 2755 S. Rockwell, the SRC will help those upon their release connect with agencies in the community that provide mental health, addiction rehabilitation, job training and other services. It will also assist to find housing for those who are homeless.
“The need for the center is particularity acute here at Cook County Jail because one in three detainees suffer from mental illness and they are often released to unstable or no housing,” said Daniel Diermeier, Provost of the University of Chicago. “The SRC is building out our city’s safety net for some of the most vulnerable members. For the next two years the
U of C Health Lab will be working with the SRC to evaluate how well it serves communities and clients.”
Sheriff Tom Dart has been an informal national spokesperson on the state of not just his jail, but county jails around the country. Dart said the jail is actually the largest mental health facility in the country because of the amount of inmates diagnosed with mental health issues. Two years ago, Dart hired Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, a psychologist, as the warden. Skeptics questioned the move, but Dart said at the time it made the most sense seeing the jail’s population.
“What you are seeing here today with this partnership program will revolutionize corrections,” said Dart in his opening statements to the media. “It will revolutionize how we treat our fellow man. What we’re doing here is what a thoughtful society does. Without programs like this we’re not a thoughtful society.”
Dart said if you read Charles Dickens novels written about England in the 1850’s it would be easy to say how horribly they treated people. But he said the people of that era thought they were really good people and never thought they would be viewed in history as being inhumane towards those who were incarcerated.
“But when you look at us 100 years from now, that is how we are going to be viewed as well. Look around this country and see how we have affirmed the obliteration of mental health services and then naively thought we’re going to work this out,” Dart said. “No psychiatrist would recommend as a course of treatment to put people in a 4×8 concrete room with a complete stranger who suffers from a completely different affliction. It’s ridiculous but that is what we do all throughout this country.”
Along with the University of Chicago Health Lab and Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the other partners in the program include Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), and Heartland Alliance Health (HAH). All partners believe the program provides a “softer landing” for vulnerable persons who are being released from the jail, with the goal of reducing re-arrests, future incarceration, adverse health outcomes, and homelessness.
According to Dart, nationwide, approximately two-thirds of jail detainees are struggling with some form of mental or behavioral health disorder. At the Cook County Jail—the largest single site jail in the United States—staff estimate that at least 30 percent of the daily population is living with some form of mental illness. More than one-in-three of those leaving the jail with indications of mental illness and substance use disorders are re-arrested within just five months of release.
Pam Rodriguez, President and CEO of TASC, told the story of how a mother of a recently released man called her to thank her. She said the woman told how it was the first time in her son’s life he was able to get into a drug rehab treatment center even though he and his family members knew it was needed. Rodriguez said a big part of the problem is people do not know what services are available; but even with that it is a shame that people have to go to jail to be connected with those services.
“Our organization has been advocating for these types of community services for those in need from the very beginning,” Rodriguez said. “Jails and prisons are not the best places to get healthcare. But this program today represents the next evolution of that strategy. It’s a thoughtful way to get people to transition from the criminal justice system back into communities.”
Dart spoke exclusively with Crusader shortly after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He said because of the financial crunch the county is now in, it was vital that he find private partners to tote the financial obligations of the program. Among the sponsors of the program are Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the Chicago Community Trust, Crown Family Philanthropy, McCormick Foundation, Mic- hael Reese Health Trust, Margo and Tom Pritzker, The Rey- nolds Family Foundation and sixdegrees.org.
“We don’t have a lot of money in this county and we are going through cuts as it is,” Dart explained. “It gives the public the understanding that we’re not asking taxpayers to foot the bill, we are being creative. The public enjoys when we do things like this. Having a positive interaction with outside entities makes it easier to go back to them for more funding for a program like this or a different variation of it. You can build that relationship and when they take you as a serious partner who follows through on commitments it just builds momentum to do more.”