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Cook County Jail 'A Mental Health Provider,' Says Sheriff Tom Dart, Threatening Lawsuit

First Posted: 02/21/2012 5:53 pm Updated: 02/22/2012 2:15 pm

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says the county jail is so overwhelmed with people whose offenses are more attributable to mental health issues than criminal impulses that the facility has become a source of mental health care for the city, and he's sick of it.

Dart told the Chicago News Cooperative that the system "is so screwed up that I’ve become the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois."

Of the 11,000 prisoners detained at Cook County Jail at any given time, Dart estimates that about 2,000 suffer from a serious form of mental illness, he told the CNC. At an estimated cost of about $143 per detainee per day, the overflow from the nearby state-run Elgin Mental Health Center, which can handle only 582 patients at a time, stands to put an undue burden on the jail's resources.

Dart's accusations are particularly salient in light of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's 2012 budget cuts, which included closing six of Chicago's 12 mental health clinics. The city says its plan to "consolidate" its mental health services will lead to better or equal quality of care for patients, and disputed reports that 2,549 patients would be impacted by the closures, saying 700 is a more accurate figure.

But some critics of the city cuts say the closures will disrupt patient/doctor relationships, and that mentally ill people may not be willing to take an extra bus or see a new doctor in order to stay on their medications.

Paired with Gov. Pat Quinn's plans to shut down two state-level mental institutions and transition to psychiatric care contracted through local hospitals, the influx of detainees with mental health issues is unlikely to be resolved without some intervention.

If state and local government officials won't intervene, Dart may try to force their hand with a lawsuit, according to ABC Chicago. The station spoke with several repeat inmates who described jail as one of few options they had for consistent access to care and medication. As much as 20 percent of the jail's population, between 1,300 and 1,400 people, have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, and receive psychiatric care while behind bars.

"What ends up happening is, there's no safety net to catch them, so they end up committing crimes, getting swept up by the police and coming to jail," jail psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Howard told ABC.

Dart told CBS Chicago that in addition to putting strain on the jail system, this trend is harming people with mental illnesses who should be patients instead of inmates, and the victims of their crimes that could have been prevented.

"People who should be being treated in the community with, in some cases, mild mental health issues, are not getting any treatment whatsoever, and as a result, they’re ending up in our jail, which I can’t conceive of anybody saying that that is the best place to treat someone with a mental illness," Dart told CBS.

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Filed by Lizzie Schiffman  |