Cook County Jail. | Sun-Times files

KADNER: A woman sits in jail because she is mentally ill

SHARE KADNER: A woman sits in jail because she is mentally ill
SHARE KADNER: A woman sits in jail because she is mentally ill

She has been in in Cook County Jail since July 4 for stealing a label maker, two cartridges for the label maker and a notebook with the name of a Chicago hotel embossed on the front cover.

It is not her first arrest. In June she was charged with retail theft by Chicago police when craft store employees observed “the subject” cutting multiple pieces of fabrics and putting them in a large suitcase. She walked past the last point of sale and did not pay for the items (valued at $217.66).


The same woman had been arrested in May for criminal trespass at an office building where she was not an employee, and for burglary from Northwestern University, accused of stealing a lap top computer.

She has been arrested more than a dozen times for things like leaving restaurants without paying her bill. She has been identified as mentally ill. And the Cook County sheriff’s staff, which runs the jail, will tell anyone willing to listen that this woman does not belong in jail. She needs help, not punishment.

I was contacted by the woman’s mother, who has been trying desperately to get her daughter that help.

“I didn’t post bond because she would just be arrested again and thrown back in jail,” the mother told me. “This has been a revolving door and it needs to stop before she gets hurt.

“She has been in hospital for psychiatric treatment. But those stays were for a few days or a couple of weeks. She needs long-term care. Months. I can’t make her understand that she needs help, but there are professionals who might be able to get through to her.

“There also ought to be a system to identify people like my daughter when police are called. With all of the technology we have, there ought to be something that pops up that tells people in law enforcement that they are dealing with someone who has a history of mental illness and to take them for treatment, not to a jail.”

I agreed not to publish the mother’s name or that of her daughter, who I interviewed at Cook County Jail.

The daughter is extremely bright and attractive.

When I asked her if she was mentally ill, she asked me to “define mentally ill.”

When I asked her if it is true that she had once jumped out of a car in traffic, she replied, “I did not jump out into traffic. It was a busy street during rush hour and traffic in Chicago comes to a halt at rush hour. I got out of the car because the person who was driving was trying to lecture me, telling me how I ought to run my life, and I didn’t want to be subjected to that any more.”

Was the busy street Lake Shore Drive during rush hour?

“Yes.” But traffic wasn’t moving. At least not very fast, the woman told me.

As a result of that incident, she was sent to a mental hospital, identified as someone with a mental problem, and now “lives with that label” whenever she ends up in the legal system.

“There’s nothing I can do about it, no way to correct it,” she told me.

She told me she was never homeless, although she has slept in homeless shelters from time to time.

“I usually had a home to go to, my own apartment.”

Why was she in a shelter?

She explained that to her being homeless is a state of mind, an admission that a person does not have a home. She has never felt that way. She is not helpless.

She is not mentally ill, she said. She is not a criminal. She is different than other people. But people have the right to be different, don’t they? That’s not a crime.

“There is a shameful lack of long term — sustainable — community-based treatment for those suffering from mental illness,” stated Cara Smith, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s chief of staff. “That’s what we need to break the predictable revolving door for people like (her). She needs comprehensive support in a way that recognizes there will be setbacks. The criminal justice system can’t be that answer, though until something changes, we are.”

The mother said, “Don’t people realize it is more expense to keep putting people like my daughter through the criminal justice system than it would be to get them the help they need? That’s all I want. I want my daughter to get some help.”

A young woman who once attended college is in Cook County Jail for taking a label maker, two cartridges and a hotel notebook. That is a crime.


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