Mental Health of the Incarcerated | Beyond the Jail Cell

barbed wire prison

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the 55th Anniversary Celebration and Dinner for Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME)

After leaving work for the weekend, I took care of a few things at home and made it downtown to the Buffalo Convention Center just in time to meet my wife for HOME’s annual awards celebration. 

It had all the makings of a good party: basket raffle, live auction, deserving awards, and desserts on the table before dinner was served.

I said hi to an old friend.  Made a few new ones. Found my table for the evening and started to get settled in.  Changes to next year’s Board of Directors for HOME was announced as the annual meeting was officially called to order.

Then the thing that typically happens at events like these started to happen.  I got inspired.  I was inspired by the Sarah G. Metzger Human Rights Award given to Rhonda Frederick of People Inc. for her incredible commitment to those with Developmental Disabilities in Western New York.  I was inspired by the stories of the early activists that fought their way through personal threats in the name of ending housing discrimination. 

I was inspired to be reminded that in the days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 marking the last piece of major legislation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. You could feel the inspiration in the room.  It was palpable as the crowd applauded for each award and scholarship winner.

But then something unexpected happened.  The Keynote Speaker took the stage and began talking about Mental Health.  He spoke about the large number of incarcerated people in the United States who are in far greater need of mental health services than a cold jail cell.  He told stories about people being released from jail in the middle of the night in the dead of winter with no home, because, well, that’s just what happens.  That’s when I scrambled for my program to figure out who I was listening to.

It was Sheriff Tom Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County Illinois, which includes Chicago.  A former prosecutor, turned state legislator, turned sheriff; Tom Dart brings a refreshing perspective to law enforcement, mental illness, and the criminal justice system.

He has introduced extensive programming into the Cook County Jail with the aim to stop the revolving door of the same detainees.  Those programs include art, chess, construction, cooking, gardening, parenting, and literacy.  But amid touting the components of his progressive approach to running a jail, he said something that stood out,


“We treat human beings like they’re human beings.”


That thinking drives decisions he has made to insist that those that go through his jail are not released with known risk factors.  If someone is known not to have a place to go home to, don’t drop them out in the cold.  And, if someone exhibits mental illness, don’t release them without an evaluation and a referral.

Sheriff Dart’s commitment to the mental health of the incarcerated prompted him to hire a psychologist to run the jail instead of someone with a background in law enforcement; furthermore, over half of the jail staff has advanced mental health training. Putting this perspective front and center acknowledges that appropriate mental health treatment is a reasonable strategy to address recidivism issues for many who don’t need to be in jail in the first place.

Sheriff Dart has his critics to be sure, but the “Cook County Jail was already one of the largest mental health facilities in the country in 2012, when Chicago closed down half its mental health clinics,” and so Sheriff Dart continues to acknowledge that his jail is not just a jail.  He is at least equal parts supervisor of one of the largest mental health facilities in the county, and equal parts law enforcement officer.

HOME Program

Ever since that dinner, the program from the Housing Opportunities Made Equal dinner has been following me around.  It was on the seat in my car.  On the kitchen counter in my home.  Then it made its way into my bag and on the road with me all the way across the state.  As I prepare for two days of intensive onsite training about visual data reporting with a mental health agency, it’s inspiration from people like Sheriff Dart that help frame perspective for me. 

My next couple of days will be filled with graphs, charts, and tables.  Lines that represent outcomes improvements, declines, successful treatment plans, and failed interventions.  But as Sheriff Dart continues to treat human beings like human beings, I pledge not to forget that behind all the assessment scores and outcomes measures driven by value-based payments, those numbers represent human beings, who deserve for us not to forget that they are human beings.

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