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Cook County Jail hires 2nd consecutive mental health professional as warden

The population at Cook County Jail has dropped below 5,900 for the first time in decades. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Cook County Jail | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Cook County Jail has a new warden — and she’s the second consecutive mental health professional to run the second-largest jail in the United States.

Amanda Gallegos started as the executive director of the jail on Tuesday, according to Cara Smith, the chief policy adviser to Sheriff Tom Dart.

Smith said Gallegos, a 2012 graduate of the University of Chicago’s undergraduate psychology program, had a “wealth of experience” after several years’ worth of work at mental health facilities in the state and federal correctional systems.

Gallegos earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology at Northwestern University, then went on to work as a supervisor at Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Ill. In her eight months at Dixon, Gallegos provided mental health services to inmates with mental disabilities.

From there, Gallegos took a similar position in 2015 at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill. A year later, Gallegos moved to San Francisco and spent two years working as a federal probation officer.

Gallegos stepped into the Cook County position after the departure of psychologist Nneka Jones Tapia, who in 2015 was the first mental health professional hired to run a major U.S. jail.

Smith said Gallegos would be part of a team effort to improving mental health services at the jail — which, despite a decline in its population, continued to face problems with providing sufficient support for detainees who have mental disabilities.

“We have the same sorts of struggles with making sure we advocate for the people in our custody,” Smith said. “We see this as an extension of the great work done by Dr. Jones.”