Sheriff Dart considers suing the state over health issue

May 20, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Sheriff Tom Dart says it has gotten so bad Cook County Jail is now the largest provider of mental health treatment in the state.

"I'm 53. I'm not proud of it, but I've been coming here ever since I was 17 years old," said Cook County Jail inmate Joyce Owens.

Nearly 30 times in 36 years Joyce Owens says she has been locked-up in the Cook County Jail. And that doesn't include the more than six years she spent in state prison after a fire.

"When the curtain caught fire I was worried about my liquor and my cocaine, and I ran out and left my daughter and she burned up in the fire," said Owens.

Since then, Owens says she has had several psychiatric breaks. The burn marks on her arms and the rest of her body are the result, she says, of begging people to burn her.

"Ever since my daughter died in that fire I've been punishing myself," said Owens.

Owens is among a growing guest list at the Cook County Jail: People who come here because they say they have no other way to receive consistent treatment and medication for mental health problems.

As much as 20 percent of the jail's population has been diagnosed with some type of mental illness. That's 1,300-to-1,400 people receiving psychiatric care while behind bars.

"What ends up happening is, there's no safety net to catch them, so they end up committing crimes, getting swept up by the police and coming to jail," said jail psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Howard.

"It's a merry-go-round. We wind up with people with retail theft, criminal trespass," said Terre Marshall, jail director of mental health.

Those are minor crimes with a major cost.

The injuries on Cook County Jail inmate Ronald Boldon's leg were caused by running onto the Eisenhower Expressway in a failed suicide attempt. He says he stole from a store so he could be sent to jail and get those thoughts out of his head.

"I got tired of staying on the street," Boldon said. "I wasn't getting my medication from no one so I had to come here to get my medication."

"The largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois is the Cook County Jail, and we're not set up do that, obviously," said Sheriff Dart.

The number of government-operated beds for people with serious mental illness tell the story:

The state has room for 1,449 people. Jails and prisons accommodate more than four times that (6,536).

"The elaborate game where we just squeeze off all of the service so there aren't any so these folks just end up going into jails frequently, and then we all act as if there's not the reason," Dart said. "We need to call it like it is."

For Joyce Owens, and others like her, "help" only comes with incarceration.

"I want to be like you," said Owens. "You're normal."

The head of the state's mental health department says they do the best they can with limited resources, and despite budget cuts in recent years, the department has been able to treat the same number of people. She says the solutions for more money for community-based care, but right now in Springfield lawmakers are considering additional cuts to the mental health budget.

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