By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, May 19 (Reuters) - A clinical psychologist will be appointed head of Chicago's Cook County Jail, the nation's second-largest jail where a third of the inmates are mentally ill, officials announced on Tuesday.
Nneka Jones Tapia will become executive director of the jail on May 26, county officials said. Tapia, who has been with the sheriff's office since 2013 and oversees mental health strategy, replaces Cara Smith, who will become chief strategy officer for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Cook County houses an average of 9,000 inmates daily, of which 25 percent to 35 percent suffer from mental illness, according to a spokesman. That number has grown in recent years as the number of mental health facilities fell, jail officials said.
Officials said Tapia is the first mental health professional to be appointed to head a large jail. Cook County is the nation's largest single-site jail - Los Angeles County has more inmates but multiple sites, said Dart.
"I think I can bring a wealth of knowledge to the staff in understanding the inmates," Tapia said in an interview.
Most of the mentally ill inmates in the jail are charged with low-level, non-violent offenses, such as trespassing and drug possession, and some get into jail just to receive treatment, Tapia said.
Dart said that since the 1960s, the number of beds in Illinois' state-run psychiatric hospitals has fallen to fewer than 1,500 from 35,000, which is why there are so many mentally ill people incarcerated.
"When a third of your population is mentally ill, you sure as heck better have someone who understands that at the top," said Dart.
A prison monitoring and criminal justice reform organization praised the move.
"Having someone in a leadership position with those kinds of credentials makes a lot of sense because so many of the issues in the jail have to do with mental illness," said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association.
In 44 states, the largest institution housing people with severe psychiatric diseases is a prison or jail, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based non-profit that focuses on eliminating barriers to treatment for the severely mentally ill.
"We should be keeping people with mental illnesses out of jails and prisons in the first place," said Center spokeswoman Jamie Mondics. She said having a focus on the problem is "a great step." (Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Doina Chiacu)