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A Psychologist as Warden? Jail and Mental Illness Intersect in Chicago

By Timothy Williams | The New York Times | July 30, 2015

CHICAGO — Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, who runs the sprawling Cook County Jail here, has an indelible childhood memory of police officers pounding on the aluminum walls of the family’s double-wide trailer home in North Carolina, rifling through cupboards and drawers, and arresting her father on charges of selling marijuana.

Dr. Jones Tapia, then 8, had to call her mother home from work.

Over the next several years, other relatives, including two brothers, and a number of friends also spent time in jail. She says she might have ended up there, too.

Instead, she became fascinated by psychology and earned a doctorate. She began working at Cook County Jail in 2006, and this spring became its unlikely warden when she was promoted to executive director — one of the first clinical psychologists to run a jail, underscoring how much the country’s prisons have become holding centers for the mentally ill. 

“It’s a national disgrace how we deal with this,” said Sheriff Thomas Dart, who appointed Dr. Jones Tapia to the post and who refers to the jail, a place notorious for its history of violence and overcrowding, as the largest mental institution in the country. He said that as many as one-third of the jail’s 8,600 inmates were mentally ill.