Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia most recently served as the Executive Director of the Cook County Department of Corrections. Dr. Jones Tapia has previously worked as the Chief Psychologist at the Cermak Health Services and the Assistant Executive Director of the Cook County Sheriff’s office. During her time in the Department of Corrections, she spearheaded several mental health initiatives at the Cook County Jail, where it is estimated that over 30 percent of the inmates have serious mental health issues. She sat down with The Gate to talk about her experience at the Jail and the problems facing the criminal justice system.
The Gate: You were the first mental health professional to run a jail in the United States. What was it like bringing a mental health background to a position that, while intimately tied to mental health issues, is normally not filled by someone with that expertise?
Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia: It was interesting. To go from focusing on the development of inmate programs to being responsible for all inmates and staff was a learning curve, but I had a great team that really stepped up. Many of the members had twenty-plus years of experience in law enforcement and corrections. They would bring their correctional expertise and I would bring my mental health expertise. It was a meeting of the minds.
I think, however, what was more important and valuable wasn’t my mental health expertise but my previous experiences working at the jail and having the necessary compassion. I better understood the culture and what it was going to take to begin to change that culture. I think those are the two assets that helped us be able to make some formidable changes.
Gate: What were the biggest issues you saw when you first assumed this position, and what did you do to tackle these problems?
NJT: There were a few hurdles we had to jump. One, we had to reform our restrictive housing. That was really the highlight of the meeting of the minds. Correctional experts understood the potential violence and I was able to bring to the table the behavioral modification side. By the time I left, we had inmates in segregation, so they had done something wrong. But they were allowed to come out of their cell for more than five hours a day, up from one hour a day, and were able to commune with other inmates while they were out. This made it an even safer environment for our staff.
Second, we were under DOJ federal monitoring. We were able to meet all of the daunting demands of the federal government and they really touted us as a model for other correctional facilities.
Third, quality of life for inmates. That is something I had already been working on so it was quite easy to continue. I made sure we were able to hire more mental health staff and to offer more enrichment programming.
Where we didn’t do so well, though we did make some significant changes, was quality of life for staff. I think our minimal ability to really make changes in the correctional culture and improving the lives of our staff is rooted in trauma. I think more work needs to be done that needs to target trauma before we can get to enrichment activities, like offering food and yoga and meditation like we have started to do.
Gate: Are these still the biggest issues affecting the jail today? What is the improvement that still needs to be done?
NJT: Two areas. The jail has a remarkable mental health team and system, but there needs to also be diversion so that there aren’t so many inmates coming in with mental illness. Diversion is going to require partnership will all the other criminal justice stakeholders. Those conversations are happening, but it is time to move from the conversation table to action to make some significant changes very soon.
Second is to continue the work to target the staff. Just like we have a robust mental health system for the inmates, I really see the benefit of having one for the staff. Perhaps that would be better received if we don’t label it as a mental health system, but a quality of life center. I think this is one area that might have the most significant impact in a positive way on the jail.
Gate: In your work, you’ve stressed rehabilitation efforts over punishment and a renewed focus on addressing situations in communities and schools before they reach the prison system. A lot of this falls in line with the rhetoric of prison abolition movements. Is there merit in the prison abolition advocacy or is it simply too-far-radical thinking?
NJT: I think to an extent that is too far radical. For some people—and I have met those people—they need to be seperated from society because evil is very difficult to change. That is a very small percentage of our population. Out of the six thousand inmates we had there when I left the Cook County Jail, I met about twenty individuals that were, in my mind, unable to be reformed. To add to that, I think when people have violent tendencies and have engaged in activity that has been a clear victim, those people need to have consequences and incarceration is one of those consequences.
I believe, however, that for people with drug offenses or theft or smaller crimes, other consequences can be offered. I do believe in significantly reducing the number of prisons we have. For the correctional institutions we have left, we need to make sure they don’t just warehouse people but focus on reform.
Gate: What do you think have been some of the causes behind why individuals with mental health issues now get funneled into prisons instead of hospitals or treatment facilities?
NJT: Of course the decrease of mental health services in the community have had a significant impact on that. To date, there are more inmates with significant mental illness housed in the Cook County Jail than there are state psychiatric beds in the whole state of Illinois. There also needs to be more efforts around prevention, not just treatment. When you look at mental illness, it is very much a young person’s disease. Most mental illness starts before the age of twenty-five. I believe that more can be done with our youth and younger population to target individuals that have an increased likelihood of mental illness.
Gate: Bruce Rauner is trying to reinstate the death penalty. What are your thoughts on this as someone who has really focused on the rehabilitation side of the prison system?
NJT: I think we have seen far too many examples, especially in recent times, of people that have been wrongfully convicted and wrongfully accused to say that we are at a point where we can reinstate the death penalty. There are a small percentage of people that I don’t believe can be rehabilitated, but I am not an advocate for the death penalty for just that reason.
Gate: Many of those concerned with criminal justice reform in America are advocates of marijuana legalization as a key way to deal the rate of mass incarceration. Is this something you would support? Is there more that would need to accompany this?
NJT: I am for the legalization of marijuana, though I do think we need to have restrictions in place so it is not easily accessible to youth. I do not think that those charged with marijuana violations should be incarcerated. If you think about it, in a state that has not legalized marijuana, there will be individuals that will be confined for possession of marijuana serving lengthy sentences. Then in a state where it has been legalized, there are individuals who are not only unincarcerated but earning a livable wage by their involvement in the responsible distribution of marijuana. To be that person that jails someone for something that someone else in another state is earning money off, that’s ridiculous. We need to all be on the same page for the laws we are instituting and how it dramatically affects people’s lives.
We also can look to lower punishments for crimes like trespassing or retail theft. Most the people I meet who commit retail theft, they are poor because we treated them wrong in society. They weren’t able to get a job because they weren’t able to have a quality education because we disinvested in our communities. We need to take responsibility for our actions and our involvement in making the criminal justice system fiasco that we have. How can we say that one person in that loop should be incarcerated when we all have a hand in it since we disinvested in that community?
Gate: You stepped down in March from your position at the Cook County Jail and your time as an IOP fellow is coming to a close. What’s next for you?
NJT: I left the jail because I felt there was more I could do in the area of prevention instead of just treatment. I am just taking the time to learn more about the Chicagoland community and how I can help.
Claire Cappaert is a second-year majoring in Public Policy and (maybe) Russian & East European Studies. This past summer, she interned for Alderman Michele Smith and, as part of the Milgrom Social Justice Fellowship, worked at a non-profit that provides literacy programming to homeless youth. On campus, Claire is on the board of EUChicago and is part of NSP. She enjoys drinking excessive amounts of coffee and tea, exploring Chicago, and being near the lake.