Faculty & Staff

Changing the Criminal Injustice System, Part 3: The ‘Other’ Prison Population

Elena Quintana, Ph.D.

‘[T]he way to provide more lasting safety for the inmates was to create a more functional self-care system for the staff.” –Elena Quintana, Ph.D.

Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff Tom Dart–who oversees the largest single-site jail in the United States–announced August 6 that his office is establishing an Office of Mental Health Policy and Advocacy, as well as a 24-hour mental health hotline for Cook County detainees and their families. Dart has been an outspoken voice on systemic mental health and justice reform; the Adler School Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice has worked with his office and others to implement a number of new approaches within the Cook County system. Below is part three and the final installment of an article about those initiatives that was published in our summer 2012 magazine Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

Avery Hart, M.D., is chief medical officer for Cermak Health Services, the healthcare provider for the approximately 10,000 detainees housed daily at the Cook County Department of Corrections and the Department of Community Supervision and Intervention—commonly known as Cook County Jail. Last year, he hoped to identify some new ideas to working with inmates and detainees, and asked the Adler School’s Elena Quintana, Ph.D., to help.  Quintana is a clinical/community psychologist and Executive Director of the School’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice.

What he received were some fresh ideas about working with staff. In December [2011], Quintana conducted a series of focus groups at Cook County Jail—the nation’s largest such facility, where more than 3,800 employees support the incarceration of nearly 10,000 prisoners. When she finished, she says, “it seemed clear to me that the way to provide more lasting safety for the inmates was to create a more functional self-care system for the staff.”

Working conditions are difficult in most jails. Those who staff them are vulnerable to depression and self-injurious behavior. A U.S. Department of Justice report on stress among correctional personnel showed that, for correctional staff, the number of workplace nonfatal violent incidents per 1,000 employees i ssecond-highest among all professions—second only behind police officers. Working with the constant threat of violence takes its toll, as do understaffing, chronic overtime, rotating shift work, and poor working conditions at a number of correctional facilities.

“It’s easy and popular to dehumanize correctional officers,” Quintana says. “They’re supposed to be tough as nails, but they are working under difficult conditions. In some cases, you have very traumatized adults working in situations that are very re-stimulating, but there’s no care for them.”

Given the realities of life inside the correctional system, correctional officers’ levels of dedication and compassion are striking to Nneka Jones, Psy.D., Chief Psychologist and Director of Psychology at Cermak Health Services.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ll have an officer come to me and say, ‘Dr. Jones, this [detainee] really needs to speak with someone.’ They really care, and they understand, for the most part, that even though an individual may be accused of something, it doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person.”

Recognizing that mental health issues are increasingly part of the inmate profile, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year mandated advanced mental health training for every new officer.

From the focus groups she led, Quintana developed an in-service curriculum for that staff training—covering support and self-care, the psychological underpinnings for power and control, and trauma-informed care, as well as traditional topics such as excessive use of force. Quintana is implementing the training this spring in conjunction with Cook County Sherriff’s Office and corrections officials, and Adler School student Lauren Bailey, who worked with the project as part of her Community Service Practicum at the School.

“This is a tremendous step for the county, to say to its corrections officers: ‘We understand your mental health needs and stresses, and we want you to have what you need to do a good job,’” Quintana says. “I hope we continue moving forward—Cook County and Chicago can produce long-term policies that are at the forefront as models for true social justice and changing the system for the better.

“People are receptive to change, and are willing to do what they need to do. The doors are being opened.”