Candlelight Vigil at Cook County Jail Shines Light on Chicago’s Mental Health Crisis

Kari Lydersen

N'Dana Carter, left, and Ronald Jackson, right, speak out about mental health care at the Cook County Jail.

Hold­ing a can­dle­light vig­il on the steps of the country’s largest jail Mon­day evening, Chicagoans tes­ti­fied one after anoth­er about the impor­tance of the city’s pub­lic men­tal health clin­ics and ser­vice providers. Half of the city’s 12 pub­lic men­tal health clin­ics were closed as a result of bud­get cuts in 2012, and advo­cates fear the remain­ing six are now over-bur­dened and being starved of resources.

Men­tal health advo­cates — and oth­ers, includ­ing Cook Coun­ty Sher­iff Tom Dart — say that the cuts in men­tal health care mean more peo­ple are end­ing up in the coun­ty jail. And being incar­cer­at­ed, fam­i­ly mem­bers and advo­cates say, only inten­si­fies men­tal health issues.

Mem­bers of the grass­roots Men­tal Health Move­ment, along­side mem­bers of AFSCME and SEIU Local 73 unions (which rep­re­sent Chica­go and Cook Coun­ty men­tal health work­ers) described the deep and wide-rang­ing effects of men­tal health crises on fam­i­lies and whole com­mu­ni­ties. Many thou­sands of Chicagoans go with­out the ben­e­fits of men­tal health care, they charged, espe­cial­ly after the clo­sure of the six clin­ics, as well as cut­backs in the coun­ty health care system.

We had peo­ple sta­bi­lized and able to work because they had talk ther­a­py,” said Men­tal Health Move­ment leader N’Dana Carter. Now in many com­mu­ni­ties peo­ple have nowhere to go, espe­cial­ly on the South Side.”

The Men­tal Health Move­ment is call­ing on the Chica­go City Council’s health com­mit­tee to hold a pub­lic hear­ing exam­in­ing the state of men­tal health care in the city and the effects of the clos­ings. After the vig­il, advo­cates vis­it­ed the near­by office of Alder­man George Car­de­nas, chair of the com­mit­tee on health and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, dur­ing his sched­uled ward night” hours. Car­de­nas did not meet with the group, but one of his staff held a pri­vate meet­ing with sev­er­al organizers.

We’ve been knock­ing on the door of Alder­man Car­de­nas since 2011 [ask­ing for the hear­ing], and he refused,” Carter said. In 2012 every one of [the alder­man ] vote[d] to close the clin­ics. We hope they were just igno­rant. We don’t believe they’re cold-heart­ed, we believe they’re igno­rant. We want to have a hear­ing so we can give them a chance not to be ignorant.”

On Wednes­day March 26, the coali­tion of advo­cates, work­ers and men­tal health con­sumers will hold a press con­fer­ence at City Hall with Alder­man Robert Fioret­ti. Fioret­ti is one of the few coun­cil mem­bers who have spo­ken out against May­or Rahm Emanuel, whose inau­gur­al bud­get found up to $3 mil­lion in sav­ings by clos­ing the six men­tal health clin­ics. The clin­ics are like­ly to be an issue in the race lead­ing up to the Feb­ru­ary 2015 may­oral elec­tion. Ama­ra Enyia, the first chal­lenger to announce her can­di­da­cy, spoke at the vigil.

I’m stand­ing in front of peo­ple, not sta­tis­tics,” Enyia said, not­ing that men­tal health is not a lux­u­ry. It’s a mat­ter of qual­i­ty of life; it’s a mat­ter of sur­vival in our com­mu­ni­ties. We need to reeval­u­ate our pri­or­i­ties as a city.”

Ronald Jack­son, a Men­tal Health Move­ment mem­ber, not­ed that Bruce Rauner, the win­ner of the recent Repub­li­can guber­na­to­r­i­al pri­ma­ry, spent more on his pri­ma­ry cam­paign than the men­tal health clin­ic clo­sures were sup­posed to save. Rauner — a close friend of Emanuelreport­ed­ly spent $6 mil­lion of his own mon­ey on the race.

Our may­or talks about putting in riv­er walks and sta­di­ums we don’t need,” Jack­son said. “[But] if there’s one per­son in a fam­i­ly, in a com­mu­ni­ty deal­ing with men­tal health needs, that whole com­mu­ni­ty is at risk.”

Carter, of the Men­tal Health Move­ment, and oth­er men­tal health con­sumers stressed the cru­cial role their ther­a­pists play in their lives, and blast­ed the city for lay­ing off ther­a­pists, coun­selors and psy­chi­a­trists with the clin­ic clo­sures, leav­ing staff at the remain­ing clin­ics over-bur­dened. Mean­while sev­er­al men­tal health work­ers spoke out about the impact on their clients.

We’re dis­turbed by the lack of sup­port for help­ing peo­ple get back on their feet,” said Mau­reen Wil­son, an art ther­a­pist in the Cook Coun­ty Jail and union stew­ard for SEIU Local 73.

Union men­tal health staff and advo­cates have said the influx of peo­ple with men­tal health prob­lems has made con­di­tions worse at the seri­ous­ly over­crowd­ed jail. 

The Cook Coun­ty Jail has often been described as the largest men­tal health care provider in the state, includ­ing by Sher­iff Dart, who over­sees the jail. Behav­ior or self-med­ica­tion relat­ed to men­tal health issues often lands peo­ple in jail if they are not receiv­ing the nec­es­sary care.

Too many times we see our peo­ple shack­led, locked up and chained, for what rea­son?” asked Dar­ius Light­foot, a mem­ber of the group Fear­less Lead­ing by the Youth (FLY). Our peo­ple should be get­ting ser­vices, not shackles.”

Fam­i­ly mem­bers and lawyers also argue over­crowd­ed and vio­lent con­di­tions in the jail exac­er­bate — and even cause — men­tal health prob­lems. The MacArthur Jus­tice Cen­ter at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty recent­ly filed a fed­er­al law­suit that charges Cook Coun­ty Jail with sys­tem­at­ic bru­tal­i­ty and vio­lence. The suit alleges, among oth­er claims, that inmates are held in seg­re­ga­tion for extend­ed peri­ods, some­times as retal­i­a­tion for their com­plaints about jail conditions.

(The Chica­go Sun-Times quotes Jus­tice Cen­ter attor­ney David Shapiro say­ing: Men tor­tured in seg­re­ga­tion hear those in neigh­bor­ing cells scream­ing into the night as they descend into psychosis.”)

One moth­er, Frances Velez, spoke at the vig­il about the con­nec­tion between incar­cer­a­tion and men­tal health after vis­it­ing her 24-year-old son in the jail. Accord­ing to Velez, her son has been in Cook Coun­ty Jail for about five months await­ing tri­al, and she hasn’t been per­mit­ted to speak with a doc­tor regard­ing her son’s med­ical his­to­ry, which includes a seizure he suf­fered after being put behind bars. Velez has rea­son to wor­ry: Her son has suf­fered seizures since child­hood and also has a bul­let lodged near his spine, she said. Men­tal health issues may not have land­ed Velez’s son in jail, but she and her sis­ter Con­nie rea­son that the stress of incar­cer­a­tion — includ­ing stints in 23-hour-a-day iso­la­tion — com­bined with his med­ical his­to­ry mean he needs men­tal health care.

Any­one would after spend­ing time in there,” Velez said. Even the moles under the ground need to come up for air some­times. That’s not right. Even if pris­on­ers are incar­cer­at­ed, they are still peo­ple. They’re somebody’s son, somebody’s nephew, somebody’s father.”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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