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Psychologist hired to run Cook County Jail

Calling it the “final piece of the puzzle” in addressing mental illness in the jail, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced Tuesday that he has appointed a clinical psychologist to run the sprawling correctional complex on the Southwest Side.

Nneka Jones Tapia will become executive director of the Cook County Jail on May 26.

Dart said Jones Tapia will be the first mental health professional to run a major U.S. jail. The facility, near 26th and California, is the second-largest in the country and more than a fourth of the inmates suffer from mental illnesses, posing security challenges and taxing county funds to treat them, sheriff’s officials say.

Nneka Jones Tapia is a counseling psychologist. | Frank Main/Sun-Times

Nneka Jones Tapia is a counseling psychologist. | Frank Main/Sun-Times

Cara Smith, the current executive director of the 8,000-inmate jail, will become Dart’s chief strategist.

Jones Tapia has worked for the sheriff’s office for about two years, overseeing the mental health strategy for the jail. She helped launch a mental health transition center in the jail’s former boot camp. It provides therapy and job training to nonviolent inmates. About 100 inmates a day are bused to the facility from the jail complex.

In an interview, Jones Tapia said she “grew up in the jail,” first as an intern in 2006 at the county-run Cermak Hospital on the jail grounds. She became a staff psychologist at Cermak, left for a year to oversee clinical psychology at a private corrections center in North Carolina, then returned to Cermak, where she was chief psychologist for three years before joining the sheriff’s office in 2013.

Jones Tapia said part of her inspiration in being a jail psychologist was seeing friends and relatives emerge from corrections facilities and succeed on the outside with support from their communities. Many inmates in the jail don’t have that outside support and desperately need treatment in the jail before they are released, she said.

One of her challenges will be to address the revolving door of mentally ill inmates who are continually jailed for petty crimes such as trespassing. The jail’s mentally ill population has risen in recent years with the closing of mental health treatment centers, sheriff’s officials say.

Jones Tapia noted that the entire correctional staff at the jail is being trained in how to recognize and respond to mental illness in inmates.

Dart has recently taken to the national stage — inviting CNN and other news organizations into the jail — to document the challenges in dealing with mentally ill prisoners.

In a news conference Tuesday announcing Jones Tapia’s appointment, Dart took a jab at Gov. Bruce Rauner for slashing state funding for mental treatment facilities, which the sheriff said will put more pressure on the jail.

Dart acknowledged some inmates are “rotten” and “evil,” but the majority are nonviolent people who committed petty crimes to survive or because they are mentally ill.

“Those individuals do not belong in our custody,” Jones Tapia said, noting that it costs less than $100 a day to treat mentally ill people in community settings, but more than $400 a day to treat inmates in the jail — including the cost of their incarceration.

Sheriff Tom Dart says at least a third of his Cook County Jail prisoners suffer from some form of mental illness, which is one reason he picked counseling psychologist Nneka Jones Tapia to run the jail. She starts May 26. | Frank Main/Sun-Times

Sheriff Tom Dart says more than a fourth of his Cook County Jail prisoners suffer from some form of mental illness, which is one reason he picked counseling psychologist Nneka Jones Tapia to run the jail. She starts May 26. | Frank Main/Sun-Times