By Bob McCaffrey // News contributor
Lock the door and throw away the key. Out of sight, out of mind. As a correctional officer who works inside the Cook County jail, I see firsthand how that pretty much sums up how society deals with crime and punishment. My opinions about incarceration piggyback on political columnist Haroon Atcha’s article in the March 5 edition of The Courier, focused on the high number of people of color behind bars in the U.S., relative to their overall population in society. Here, my focus will be on the number of detainees in jail certified as mentally ill.
First, a startling mental health statistic that changes daily, as listed on the latest front webpage of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office regarding its jail population: “49 percent of arrestees at the March 7 Cook County intake self-identified as mentally ill.”
Imagine that. Half of all detainees in jail not only know they have a mental health issue, but they’re actually willing to admit it to get the help they need. Statistics can get boring very quickly, but if you were asked what facility in Illinois houses the largest number of the mentally ill, the answer is the Cook County Jail. The reasons have been well publicized, funding cuts that have led to state mental health treatment facilities being shuttered. Patients then often have to either move in with family or friends, or the majority of the time, fend for themselves which means they end up homeless on the streets committing more crimes – but the numbers show many of which are non-violent offenses.
Russian philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that the degree of civilization in a society can be measured by entering its jails. Once behind bars, the mentally ill are targets of abuse to fellow detainees who prey among the weak. There’s only so much us officers can do to protect the vulnerable from being taken advantage of by bullies, since we can only be in so many places at one time.
Please remember, I’m not talking about violent offenders here, but the detainees who commit non-violent offenses and simply don’t know any better; desperately need mental health treatment including medication. The mentally ill who break the law can still be securely detained, but health professionals I work with at the jail will certainly tell you the sick belong in a setting more conducive to providing health care and rehabilitation in order to possibly re-enter our communities as productive and safe members of society.
What goes around, comes around. So how do we stop this unending cycle of arrest, release, and re-arrest, over and over again. I’m not a public policy expert, but we need to stop and think twice when a politician says they will cut spending on social programs that help the most vulnerable among us. Stop and think next time when a company raking in huge profits threatens to leave the state when demanding a tax break. Stop and think when we hear the explanations about the root causes of crime, and how an ineffective criminal justice system ultimately affects all of us – be it directly or indirectly. Whatever goes around, comes around. Am I my brother’s keeper? If you think not, then there will continue to be the same detainees cycling through our broken criminal justice system, both the mentally ill, and you – the victims of their crimes.