by Lisa D’Souza
A few days ago, the New York Times reported that 2,000 of the 11,000 people housed in Chicago’s Cook County Jail have a serious mental illness. Sheriff Tom Dart calls himself the “largest mental health provider in the State of Illinois.” In the next two months, Chicago plans to close half of its mental health care centers. This will exacerbate an already tragic problem.
It’s what I think of as the sordid secret of the criminal justice system: a lot of the people we lock up in jails and prisons aren’t criminals. Many have untreated mental illness. A mentally ill person is about three times more likely to be jailed than they are to be hospitalized.
The 1960s were a watershed for freedom in this country. New laws enforced the rights of all people, regardless of skin color, to vote, go to school and find employment. People with mental illnesses and physical disabilities gained the freedom to live in the communities instead of the institutions where many had been warehoused. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that from 1955 to 1980, the number of people institutionalized in state mental hospitals fell from 559,000 to 154,000.
But how well have we stood by our brothers and sisters who struggle with mental illness? The National Alliance on Mental Illness gives the U.S. an overall grade of D, with 6 states earning a failing grade.
Our neighbors are in crisis. They have health care needs going unmet. Our current answer is to put them in jail. We, like Sheriff Dart, must ask ourselves, “What have we become?”