It was 9 o’clock in the morning at Cook County Jail, but in the subterranean holding cells where dozens await their turn before a judge, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Pre-bail processing here takes place entirely underground.
A labyrinth of tunnels connects the jail’s buildings to one another and to the Cook County Criminal Court. Signs and directions are intentionally left off the smooth concrete corridors to hinder escape attempts. Even those who run the jail get lost down here from time to time, they told me.
No natural light reaches the tunnels. Human voices echoed off the featureless walls, creating an omnipresent din. On this Monday, when those arrested over the weekend in Chicago and its suburbs filled the fenced cages, that din became a roar. Many inmates were standing, sitting, or milling around. But some—perhaps two or three per holding pen—were lying on the floor, asleep.
If you can sleep through this, you’re fighting far greater demons than the commotion outside. And the doctors here want to know what they are.
At Cook County Jail, an estimated one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. At least 400,000 inmates currently behind bars in the United States suffer from some type of mental illness—a population larger than the cities of Cleveland, New Orleans, or St. Louis—according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives.
“This is typically what I see everyday,” said Elli Petacque-Montgomery, a psychologist and the deputy director of mental health policy for the sheriff’s department. She showed me a medical intake form filled with blue pen scribbles.
Small boxes listed possible illnesses: manic depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and so on. The forms are designed to help jail officials identify which inmates have mental illnesses as early as possible. Details from four new inmates could fit on a single sheet. She showed me a completed one. “Of those four,” she said, pointing to the descriptors, “I have three mentally ill people.”
On a nearby counter, a nurse took down notes for a Hispanic inmate with an injured eye. A white inmate with dreadlocks wearing a Chicago Bears jersey—they had defeated the San Francisco 49ers the night before—stood next to them, translating his fellow inmate’s Spanish for the nurse.
What sort of crimes had these people been arrested for? One kid on the list had a tendency toward aggression, but officials emphasized that the overwhelming majority were “crimes of survival” such as retail theft (to find food or supplies) or breaking and entering (to find a place to sleep). For those with mental illness, charges of drug possession can often indicate attempts at self-medication.
“Even the drugs of choice will connect to what the mental illness is,” Petacque-Montgomery told me. People with severe depression might use cocaine “to lift their mood.” Those who hear voices and have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder often turn to heroin to regulate their sleep. Marijuana use “is just constant for kids with ADD and depression,” she notes. “I’ll ask, ‘Can you eat or sleep without this?’ and they’ll say no.’”
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