lili Holzer-Glier

Photographer/reporter Lili Holzer-Glier’s Inside the Massive Jail That Doubles as Chicago’s Largest Mental Health Facility marries meaningful and well-reported content and with hard-hitting images under a single byline.

It’s a day-in-the-life-ish of the mental health professionals and patients at Cook County Jail in Chicago, which is the largest walled institution in the United States. What stood out for me was the reason with which both patients and professionals speak and assess the situation. Even though their attitudes could be dismissed as those from a madhouse in the big house, these first-hand-responders are collected and clear in what the problems are and what the solutions might be. And, surprise! Incarceration is not a solution.

I was left to reflect on my own frantic dismay at the United States’ beyond broken mental health policies. But panic doesn’t help anyone. Reliable and committed health helps and this is the overriding takeaway from Holzer-Glier’s piece. The pictures reflect that too. There’s no outbreaks, no violence and no real “noise”. The patients are returning to a baseline and feeling listened to. It’s just a shame they have to be in a jail to receive that attention.

Holzer-Glier opens the piece with a volley of desperate facts.

“According to a May 2015 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness,” writes Holzer-Glier, “Illinois cut $113.7 million in funding for mental health services between 2009 and 2012. Two state-operated inpatient facilities and six City of Chicago mental health clinics have shut down since 2009. The report goes on to detail that Governor Bruce Rauner’s 2016 budget proposal to slash $87 million of funding for mental health services could cause an estimated 16,533 adults to lose access to care.”

From the way the article reads, it seems Holzer-Glier spent one day (November 10th 2015) observing the in-take and processing. She follows social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery and her team as they assess new arrivals at the jail.

“Acutely psychotic, violent, or suicidal arrestees [are put] in single cells away from other inmates. People who are psychotic are then sent to CERMAK, the jail’s division for physically ill and acutely mentally ill patients. Those with minor mental illness are sent to Division Two, Dorm Two, where they live in dormitory-style bunk beds…”

While the four prisoner-patients Holzer-Glier meets–Milton, Daniel, Tommy, and Andrew–have problems they aren’t totally bereft of hope. They’re in the bunks of Dorm Two. They provide key insight. Thankfully, Holzer-Glier doesn’t make a case for them, but rather allows them to make their own case. Their statements are transcribed.

They speak with gratitude about how the attention they receive from the medical staff is professional, encouraging and helpful. They have hope they can find stability but they don’t (or can’t) offer too many certain routes to stability. Some plan to leave Illinois when they get out. Some hope to find a good balance from meds that have proved helpful in the past. Another just plans on a steak and a hot bath “to get rid of the crazies.”

In each case, it’s clear they’ll need assistance beyond these jail walls. But will they have access to care? Ask the professionals. Holzer-Glier closes the piece with a series of statements from a clinical psychologist, a social worker, a guard, director of the care center and a corrections rehabilitation worker, all of whom work in Cook County Jail and interface with the mentally ill prisoner-patients. They all report that mental health institutions elsewhere have been closed at a incomprehensible rate and that the majority of people they interface with in the jail should be in a medical facility not a prison.

“You can’t just take a mentally ill person and lock them away. Society has already shown it doesn’t work,” says Printiss Jones, the Superintendent of CERMAK, the jail’s division for physically ill and acutely mentally ill. “Why would we do it here?”

And the piece ends.

Jones says, “Not one of these people should be here.”

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