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.”

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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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