Dr. Nneka Tapia was warden of the Cook County Jail in Chicago; now she is an advocate for prison reform. Tapia came to the criminal justice system with a unique background — a psychologist whose own father had been incarcerated. Today, she is using the perspective she gained on both sides of the system to push for change. You can watch the full clip here.
This op-ed by Liz Dozier, Chicago Beyond’s Found and CEO, was published online on August 25,2021 on k12dive.com
“She really saw something in me. It was crazy. I ain’t seen nothing in me.” Those are the words of a previous student of mine named Jason. I am a former Chicago Public Schools principal from Fenger High School on Chicago’s South Side.
When I started at the school, Fenger had been cast as one of the most violent and underperforming schools in the city of Chicago, and my team and I were charged with turning things around. At Fenger, I witnessed how traumatic experiences can disrupt a young person’s academic performance, personal relationships and future opportunities. I’ve also seen how all of that can be changed with intention and supportive frameworks like holistic healing.
As another school year approaches with challenges that seem more nuanced and complex than ever before, we have to be prepared to provide this emotional support so every student has a chance to succeed.
My school was the intersection of every failure we’ve perpetrated as a society: Fractured family units, disinvestment and neglect. But every one of my students was a glimmer of hope and possibility.
Meeting students’ social and emotional needs isn’t easy and sometimes means dropping whatever you’re doing. At Fenger, this required my colleagues and I to change our beliefs and center our young people — who surprisingly are often forgotten in our education system. Young people like Jason.
The community I built during my time as an educator directly impacted the well-being of my students, and incredible shifts occurred when we put healing at the center of our strategies. By focusing on building relationships, understanding the emotional needs of each individual, and not inflicting punishment and making assumptions, my team and I were able to decrease my high school’s dropout rate from 19% to 2%, increase our freshman on-track-to-graduate rate to 40%, and increase my students’ attendance and the school’s state graduation rate to double-digits.
I share these stats to point out what was possible with intention and awareness of how traumatic events outside of the classroom affect students, and with the implementation of restorative justice and holistic healing strategies.
Jason was one of the many great students I had the privilege of working with during my time as principal. He was a tall, lovable kid with kind eyes who never held grudges and loved basketball. He was someone’s brother. He was someone’s son. He was someone who came from a challenging environment and had faced some obstacles in the classroom.
Jason was a frequent visitor to my office because of one incident or another. The obstacles Jason faced were not because he didn’t care about school or because he enjoyed getting in trouble. They were because of the environment and the compounded trauma he was experiencing both outside and inside of the school walls.
Jason’s situation unfortunately wasn’t a unique case. Many other students I worked with were exposed to unimaginable trauma — from losing a family member to a parent or guardian losing a job, neglect, gun violence, housing insecurity and food insecurity. And what’s worse, the trauma our students go through today has only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the realization of the racial injustices that continue to happen across the country.
Students dealing with the compound effect of the pandemic, racial injustice and unjust public systems that perpetuate cycles of trauma are struggling. They need help, and it’s on all of us to be there to support them and provide the healthiest environment we can so each student can reach their fullest potential.
Jason was never really given an ecosystem to thrive. It’s the same case with so many other young people forgotten by our public school system today. Oftentimes as an educator, there is a level of guilt felt by not being able to provide the environments we know our students need to thrive. But when I began to understand the benefits of holistic healing and saw its incredible results with academic performance, behavior and social skills, I felt like there was finally a way to allow our young people to show up in authentic ways that were true to themselves and heal the trauma they were holding on to.
When young people experience trauma at home, in school or in their communities, there is no one way to heal these situations meaningfully. We have to meet each individual where they are and understand what will allow them the space to heal, and, more importantly, create an environment that eradicates the continuous trauma. Despite the challenges our students like Jason face, it is the environment, emotional support and resources that help build the foundation for them to live their lives without barriers.
When all our systems begin to address the trauma our young people experience, they will no longer need to stay in survivor mode, but will instead be able to dream and live more vibrantly. After our time together at Fenger, Jason and I stayed in touch. I would run into him downtown or see him at events across the city. But in 2017, I got a call that Jason had been shot and was in the hospital. He died shortly after.
I think about Jason often and wonder what would happen if we gave every young person a real opportunity to be who they’re meant to be. We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done. It’s on all of us, as educators and members in the ecosystem, to provide emotional and social support so students like Jason can address their trauma head-on and heal.
As we enter a new school year faced with unforeseen and unprecedented obstacles after a year of virtual learning, I encourage leaders in the education space to push the boundaries with innovative, intentional and supportive frameworks that center humanness, righteousness and truth. We have to show up for our students so they can feel empowered to show up for themselves. We must center a holistic approach to healing for our students when they enter the classroom again, in person, this fall.
As cities across the country try to ensure that a 911 call summons the right kind of help—including for those with mental health and substance use issues—a recent University of Chicago event explored ways to “reimagine and improve crisis response.”
Hosted by the Harris School of Public Policy and UChicago’s Health Lab, the 75-minute event was part of Harris’ Summer of Social Impact series. It included a fireside chat with Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris, and Prof. Harold Pollack, faculty co-director of the Health Lab.
To kick off the July 27 event, Baicker and Pollack spoke about the Health Lab’s mission and its first-response work in Chicago and throughout the nation—including the new TRANSFORM911, an initiative that will convene a diverse set of stakeholders in search of solutions. They touched on ways predictive analytics and research can help improve first-response outcomes.
A leading health economist, Baicker noted that, with limited time or resources on a busy night for first responders, the nature and impact of the response “plays out very differently in different communities.”
Pollack, an expert on the intersection of public health and poverty, described the 911 system as “a tremendous resource—in that, if you’re having an emergency, the idea that there’s this place that you can call 24/7, 365 and get help is extremely valuable.”
But “it is also so limited,” added Pollack, the Helen Ross Professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.
That conversation was followed by a panel discussion which centered on the intersection of public health and public safety, digging into the inequities of crisis response systems and highlighting what is being done, and can be done, to improve them.
The panelists agreed that the 911 system’s limitations have been sparking demands for reform nationwide, and have led to critical conversations about unmet needs within the system.
The panel featured Nneka Jones Tapia, managing director of justice initiatives for Chicago Beyond; Nicole Gastala, a clinical physician at Mile Square Health Centers and medical director of the Substance Use Prevention and Recovery Division at the Illinois Department of Human Services; Matt Richards, deputy commissioner of behavioral health at the Chicago Department of Public Health; and Joel K. Johnson, president and CEO of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC).
The panel was moderated by Jason Lerner, Health Lab portfolio director. The Health Lab is one of the University of Chicago’s five Urban Labs, which partner with civic and community leaders to address challenges in urban life.
As panelists discussed a broader definition of “crisis response,” including follow-up after a 911 call, attention also turned to prevention, and how public officials could intervene to help people before a 911 call is ever made.
“The reality, at least from my perspective,” said Tapia, “is that we’re talking about this crisis response really because Chicago, the County of Cook, the State of Illinois, and this country as a whole have not committed to the significant and sustained investment in prevention and early intervention that’s required to fully support the health and wellness specifically of Black and brown people, and more generally of poor people.”
Tapia, who was previously warden of the Cook County Jail, also stressed the importance of taking a community-wide approach to prevention and early intervention, saying, “the expertise is in community.”
Building on Tapia’s comments, Johnson said early intervention and prevention are crucial. “We’re talking about a crisis system that’s not really a system. We’re in crisis and we’re responding. It’s not really a system of care.” Johnson, who was recently appointed to the Chicago Board of Health, described barriers to solving such issues as scarce infrastructure and funding and the absence of ways to ensure continued care and support.
Gastala illustrated what she called the “handoff” problem by noting the differences in how two patients who end up in an emergency room—one with a heart attack and one for an opioid overdose—are treated.
“The patient who survives an opioid overdose has a higher mortality risk within that year than the patient who survived the heart attack,” she said, “but guess who gets all of the services? Guess who gets an immediate appointment with cardiology, gets started on medication, maybe they are watched over night and observed and then connected to all of the out-patient resources that they need?
“That doesn’t really happen with patients who survive an opioid use disorder.”
This, she added, is one of the “great fractures within our health system that we really have to focus on addressing” to help substance use patients overcome roadblocks, particularly those who are underserved and may have other problems such as housing and food insecurity.
“What we’re talking about,” Lerner said, “are a number of really systemic issues including issues of equity in the health-care, justice, and many other systems. Clearly, a more comprehensive approach is needed to address these issues.”
What are solutions to do that? Speakers, expanding on things already mentioned, shared several that are in place or on the horizon such as:
- Placement of mental-health professionals in 911 response centers to handle calls, something Chicago is to debut as a pilot program later this year.
- Expansion of Chicago’s Narcotics Arrest Diversion Program, which the Health Lab partnered on and which allows eligible people who otherwise would have been arrested for drug possession to avert arrest by instead opting into treatment.
- Education to reduce stigma about issues such as homelessness.
- A holistic approach to addressing trauma, like the Healing-Centered Framework that Chicago Public Schools launched in March with Chicago Beyond and the Children First Fund. The framework is an acknowledgement that what is needed for students, staff, and families must go beyond required resources to include culture and climate in reducing trauma and must apply an equity lens, Tapia said.
- Establishment of initiatives such as Chicago Beyond’s Holistic Healing Fund, a $10 million transformative investment, Tapia said, “in community healers like Pastor Donovan Price of Solutions & Resources (S&R) and Asiaha Butler of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE). Like the panelists mentioned, 911 is limited. So how do we actually expand what we think about when it comes to addressing crises and invest in community healers?”
- Exploration of flexible funding options including from the philanthropic community and non-traditional cash sources to, as Johnson said, “fund a revolution.”
“There’s a lot to be hopeful about,” Lerner said.
“I’m really excited,” he added, “to see how we can continue to reimagine and improve crisis response in Chicago and beyond.”
Our Founder & CEO Liz Doizer spoke with Brandis Friedman on Chicago Tonight’s Black Voices segment about a recent study by the University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab, that found one in seven CPS students experiences homelessness during their time at the district.
Taishi Neuman experienced homelessness when she was a sophomore in high school. She had a two-year-old daughter and wasn’t able to afford a babysitter, so she couldn’t always make it to class.
“I couldn’t attend high school on the regular,” Neuman said. “I would go as much as I could, but once I got to my junior year I had to quit and I didn’t know back then that they had liaison and they had things that CPS can give me to help me to finish my education.”
Today, Neuman is a parent of three Chicago Public Schools students. She’s also a founding member of the eduction committee at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which helps advise CPS on how it can support homeless students.
According to a recent study by the University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab, one in seven CPS students experiences homelessness during their time at the district. Black students were disproportionately represented, with 26% experiencing homelessness during their tenure, compared to 4% of Hispanic students and 2% of white students, the study found.
“When you look at Black students, specifically over the course of their time at CPS, one in four will experience homelessness, which is really, really shocking,” said Carmelo Barbaro, executive director of the Inclusive Economy Lab. “That’s the result of longstanding discrimination, exclusion from economic opportunity and other factors that make access to safe, stable and affordable housing more challenging for our Black neighbors.”
The Department of Education has an expansive definition of what homelessness is, Barbaro said. It can include living on the streets and in shelters, or sleeping as a guest in someone else’s home and “couch surfing.”
Whatever form it takes, homelessness can negatively impact a student’s academic performance and success, the study found. Within the first year of being homeless, elementary school students missed an average of five days of instruction, while high school students missed an average of eight days.
“This was particularly troubling to us because homelessness is not just a symptom of poverty, but it plays a role in perpetuating poverty,” Barbaro said. “We see that experiencing homelessness for the first time has a significant impact in that first year on attendance, it has an impact on GPA and leads to learning loss that can hold a student back academically over time.”
Barbaro said homeless students likely faced greater challenges during the pandemic, particularly in terms of online learning if they lacked access to a quiet space or broadband internet.
Impact on Student Success
Fenger Academy High School had a high number of homeless students, with over 50% in temporary living situations, said Liz Dozier, who served for six years as the school’s principal.
One student in particular stands out in Dozier’s memory. She was a “stellar” student, Dozier said, who was involved in after-school activities and was a “joy to be around.” The student and her family became homeless midway through the school year when their home burned down.
“Almost immediately we saw a decline in not necessarily her showing up to school, but just her social-emotional well-being, how she was showing up academically,” Dozier said.
Through pre-established relationships with the student, the school was able to learn what had happened and support the student and her family with wraparound services, Dozier said.
“It’s a traumatic experience to not have a place to rest and reside,” Dozier said. “To not have that or to have that disrupted and to be living in a shelter or sleeping on someone’s couch, it’s really hard to navigate the academic things … our most basic needs need to be met first,” said Dozier, who is now the founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond.
Support Student Success
The University of Chicago’s study outlined seven ways schools can support students experiencing homelessness, including focusing on meeting their basic needs.
Dozier said building relationships is the first place to start.
“It’s not like a student comes in and reports that they’re homeless,” Dozier said. “They might not even know that they are homeless if they are doubled up. They might not think of themselves in that way. Part of it for us at Fenger was understanding students and building relationships with them so we could get the information that we needed to be able to support them.”
Fenger also provided bus cards, clothes and meals, Dozier said.
Barbaro said CPS and individual school principals and staff are working to find ways to support homeless students.
“We saw a lot of principals, school staff going above and beyond their normal job responsibilities to try to find ways to support students, being really creative about accessing resources so that students could have clean clothing and toiletries and could come to school and fully engage in the educational experience without feeling socially isolated or stigmatized as a result of experience,” Barbaro said.
Neuman said she would like CPS to have more counselors to support homeless students.
“In your teen years you’re already going through a lot of things,” Neuman said. “Some kids look at school as a priority and if they had more counselors to help guide them through situations that they’re going through, we’ll have a more success story with our CPS students.”
Neuman is currently working toward her GED, and hopes her work on the education committee can help ensure homeless students are able to continue their education.
“Anything to help them, because I wish when I was growing up there were people out there who could help me to finish my education,” Neuman said.
Every summer, it feels like clockwork. A spike in violence, tough news cycles, politicians claiming to have the “answer” to decrease crime and keep communities safe.
As a Chicagoan, I know how this story plays out. We throw money into crime “prevention” programs, hiring more police officers, putting more guns on the street to protect us from the guns in the hands of the “bad guys.” It never works. Yet, we still hope for a different ending.
President Biden recently visited Chicago. His administration has called for five new strike forces to curb illegal gun traffic, increases in police hiring and violence intervention programs to kick off in 15 cities across the country. They’ve also encouraged cities and states to use COVID-19 relief funds to meet this agenda.
We have tried investing in police. Annually, the U.S. spends about $778 billion in defense spending, police spending included. For reference, that’s more than what China, India, Russia, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia spend annually combined. How much more evidence do we need to see that’s not working? We need a different approach.
Don’t get me wrong: we need to stem illegal gun trafficking, but that’s simply a band-aid over a wound that runs deeper. Our society’s continued disinvestment in young people and Black and brown communities is the problem. And until we fix that, we’ll continue to see this story repeat itself over and over.
Our solution starts with investments that help heal our communities. Violence is a cyclical problem and if we want to interrupt it, we need to create environments that allow young people to thrive — that includes economic investments in communities, jobs, top-notch schools, etc. Additionally, it is imperative that we create spaces for people to emotionally and physically heal from the onslaught of trauma that ravages our communities.
About 10 years ago, I got hired at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago. I had started just three weeks before the school made international news from a viral video that drew attention to “Chicago’s youth violence problem.” My first year at Fenger, there were over 300 arrests within the school walls. I lost students too. Micah. Shamari. Derrion. Fred. Lee. Marquel.
A decade later and the headlines are the same. Leaders at every level still point fingers at young people for why things are the way they are. At what point do we as adults begin to take accountability for the role we play? At what point will the corporations, the institutions and the politicians who have for so long disenfranchised the communities suffering take responsibility for their part?
Once I stopped and began to evaluate those questions, the tides at Fenger changed. Instead of trying to discipline our way out of the issues pervasive in the school, filling the halls with two districts worth of police officers, we worked on building a safer and more trauma-informed community. Within a few years, the dropout rate at the school went from 19% to 2%. Attendance and graduation rates skyrocketed. What was known as one of the most underperforming schools in the country evolved into a community that prioritized restorative justice practices and social and emotional learning. We began to heal the trauma that so many young people faced.
People often asked me what the trick was to turning Fenger around. I’ll let you in on a secret — we stopped trying to “fix” the students and began to fix the ecosystem in which they existed. The young people remained the same, filled with potential and possibility, but the environment that surrounded them was modified to meet their needs, giving them a chance to succeed.
The same must be true with our cities and communities. We have to stop trying to “fix people” and instead redirect and reimagine the ways in which our systems and institutions can create environments that allow people to thrive. We have to stop thinking that discipline and force is the only path.
On paper, Fenger was the intersection of every failure we’ve perpetuated as a society: Fractured family units, lack of resources and neglect. But once I started to look at every student as a microcosm of possibility, things changed.
As a country, we have to do more of that. Gun violence alone is not the problem. In Chicago specifically, we’ve seen the effects of decades of neglect and exploitation of Black and brown communities. At every level, the government has either facilitated or ignored the decline of industries, resources and opportunities to make way for a rise in crime, violence and poverty. Last year, JPMorgan Chase invested 41 times more into white Chicago neighborhoods than Black neighborhoods. Just four majority-white neighborhoods received more money than all majority-Black neighborhoods combined.
Solving gun violence starts with community investment. If we make a holistic effort to unify communities, provide long-overdue resources without all the red tape and work to right the wrongs that have occurred in Black and brown communities for far too long, we’ll see the results we’re yearning for. It is a long-term plan we need to invest in, not a short-term “summer solution.”
My time at Fenger moved me to launch Chicago Beyond, an organization that would do just that by investing in ideas, individuals, and organizations on the ground and working side by side with those most impacted. Our goal is to architect plans that work to holistically make Chicago a healthier and safer place.
The Biden Administration, the City of Chicago and other cities across the United States need to take a long hard look at who they’re supporting and how. Community leaders, organizations working day in and day out on the streets, and young people who are facing the unavoidable trauma that comes with this type of violence need compassion and support, not more discipline and neglect.
Our Managing Director of Justice Initiatives Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia spoke with Brandis Friedman on Chicago Tonight’s Black Voices segment about the rising rates of incarceration of women and the need for mental health supports within jails and prisons.
An increasing number of women are dying in U.S. jails.
In 2000, women accounted for about 10% of jail deaths. In 2018, that number grew to 16.1%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Black women in particular are overrepresented in the nation’s jails and prisons. Six years ago this month, Chicago-area native Sandra Bland was found hanged in her Texas jail cell after a traffic stop led to her arrest.
While the number of women in prisons is relatively small compared to the number of men, the rate of female incarceration has been on the rise. In 1980, 26,378 women were incarcerated nationwide, and in 2019 that number increased to 222,455, according to data from the Sentencing Project. That’s an increase of 743%.
However, policies and procedures in correctional institutions have not changed, said Nneka Jones Tapia, a psychologist and the managing director of justice initiatives for Chicago Beyond who served as warden at Cook County Jail between 2015 to 2018.
“Women are often overlooked when we talk about programs and treatment and access to health care within these systems because the number is relatively small compared to men,” Jones Tapia said. “Correctional systems as a whole are catastrophically dark places. They disconnect people from everything they know and love. They drain hope out of a person’s life and people — especially women, and especially Black women and women of color — are overly exposed to trauma within these systems like sexual violence and physical violence.”
More than 60% of women in prison have children under the age of 18, according to data from the Sentencing Project. Many are the sole caregivers for their children, Jones Tapia said, which adds another layer to the impact of the carceral system.
Most women entering the carceral system bring at least one traumatic event with them, and the system exacerbates it, Jones Tapia said.
Willette Benford was incarcerated for over two decades and is now the decarceration organizer at LIVE FREE Illinois. She says the trauma of being in prison is unlike any other.
“Going inside with trauma just from being a Black woman in America,” Benford said. “Then going inside and being oppressed, because most prisons are in rural southern counties and predominantly white officers and male officers.”
Benford said officers could walk past their rooms and look through their doors while they got dressed or watch them use the toilet. Other trauma includes strip searches, which Benford said she experienced twice.
This is why mental wellness is a key part of the reentry process, said Celia Colón, the founder of Giving Others Dreams, which supports women after they leave prison.
“We support people, our people, unapologetically,” said Colón, who was herself formerly incarcerated. “We show up with no judgement, no disparities, giving them resources and tools, being their mentors their guides, but also giving them all the support that they need for their first month home, meaning we support the woman and their family because when somebody is incarcerated, the whole family is impacted. The whole family is hurting.”
In Candice Norwood’s latest article for 19th News, she writes about how jails, especially small and rural facilities, struggle to provide adequate physical and mental health care for women, experts say. She interviewed our Managing Director of Justice Initiatives, Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia to hear about her experience.
Six years ago today, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was found hanged in her Texas jail cell three days after she was pulled over for a traffic violation and subsequently arrested.
Bland’s death sparked national outcry over the abuses of the criminal justice system against Black women. Her story is also part of a larger trend of women experiencing rising incarceration rates and deaths inside jail facilities.
Women are the country’s fastest growing incarcerated group, concentrated in rural counties. From 2008 to 2018, the women’s jail population grew by 15 percent while men’s decreased by 9 percent, according to federal data. In 2018, women had nearly 7 percent higher mortality rate in jails than men, largely due to illness, suicide and drug or alcohol intoxication.
Experts told The 19th that the numbers underscore the need to not only assist women’s needs inside the jails, but to also implement systemic reforms, services and programs that can reduce their arrests.
“I think as long as we refuse to put money into those places that we know can help people, there will continue to be people with some really acute needs. We’re going to keep wanting to put them somewhere, and the place that we put them will be jail, and some of them will die there,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) currently offers the most comprehensive national data on jail mortality, but provides a limited picture of the challenges facing women and no information on the death rates among nonbinary people. This spring, BJS released its most recent data from 2018, showing that women had a higher jail mortality rate than men for just the second time since the bureau began issuing these reports in 2000.
The rate in jails is a stark contrast to that of state prisons, where men were more likely to die in 2018, at a rate of 356 per 100,000 state prisoners, compared with 203 out of every 100,000 for women. One factor is that prisons, which hold incarcerated people for longer terms, can have resources that jails may not offer since they are considered a more temporary setting.
While women comprised 16.1 percent of all jail deaths in 2018, that has increased from 10 percent in 2000. As with Sandra Bland, the majority of jail deaths occurred among people who had not been convicted of a crime, and about 40 percent in 2018 happened within the first seven days of admission, though the BJS report does not break out this information specifically for women. The report also does not give data for specific groups such as Black women.
Illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and respiratory infections, collectively killed women at the highest rate, followed by suicide and problems related to drugs and alcohol. The concentration of deaths in these areas reflects the needs women have both in and out of incarceration.
Women are more likely than men to enter jail with chronic diseases, substance use issues, mental illnesses and experiences with physical or sexual abuse, experts said. These issues disproportionately affect women of color — particularly Black women.
“I would say most, if not all of the women entering jails have been exposed to some form of trauma … and when they enter into jails and prisons, it becomes overwhelming,” said Nneka Jones Tapia, a psychologist who served as jail warden for Illinois’ Cook County from 2015 to 2018.
That trauma is often exacerbated by the experience of incarceration, where women are often separated from their communities and their children. About 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
“The whole process of incarceration for everyone continues to dehumanize and remove dignity from a person who already is experiencing difficulty with hope,” said Jones Tapia, who is now the managing director of justice initiatives for Chicago Beyond, an organization that focuses on youth equity.
Both prisons and jails struggle to provide adequate physical and mental health care for women, and the situation is even more dire for rural and small jail facilities, said Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans with a focus on prison and jail conditions.
The problems range from leaving pregnant people to deliver babies alone in their cells to overlooking signs of severe drug withdrawal. In many cases, women’s health-related complaints are not taken seriously, Armstrong said. Treatments women are doing prior to arrest to address certain health conditions are often disrupted inside, and they likely will not receive a comprehensive health evaluation to identify underlying conditions.
In 2017, 27-year-old Kelly Coltrain died in a Nevada jail from drug withdrawal complications three days after being booked. She reportedly asked for medical treatment to assist with withdrawal, noting past experiences with seizures, but was ignored. She was supposed to be checked on every 30 minutes, but lay dead in her cell for about six hours before a deputy discovered her body.
Though BJS’ data reflects outcomes prior to COVID-19, efforts to mitigate spread of the virus in jails did not prioritize women and their elevated vulnerability, said Michele Deitch, a distinguished senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin who co-authored a report about the experiences of women behind bars during the pandemic.
Deitch said jails and prisons can work to be more responsive to women inside while public officials address systemic challenges women face in society overall that lead to incarceration.
As the jail warden in Cook County, Jones Tapia said she took a holistic approach to meeting incarcerated people’s needs that included programming for mental wellness, substance use, education and job training. But even in her effort to help, Jones Tapia recognized that she perpetuated a broken system, she said.
After taking some time away from the Cook County jail system, she came to believe that society needs to shift focus from punishment to safety, that it needs to hold people who work in the incarceration system accountable for structural harm and that it needs to prioritize decarceration.
Her sentiments were reflected by other experts who said that closing health and economic disparities can help reduce the ways women come into contact with the criminal justice system. Cities and towns can also change law enforcement response to drug or mental health issues.
“For decades, we’ve been shifting away from treatment and towards punishment,” said Merry Morash, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. “I don’t think the issue is to make jails really responsive to women, it’s like, keep them out of jail.”
Most women are put in jail for low-level offenses related to property, drug or public disorder often driven by poverty, unemployment, mental illness or trauma, according to a 2016 report from the Vera Institute for Justice. An estimated 32 percent of women in jails have what is classified as a “serious mental illness,” 60 percent did not have full-time employment prior to their arrest and 86 percent report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, the Vera Institute said.
A stronger system of social services and health treatment can address some of these needs, Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative said.
“I don’t want to make it seem like I think that there is a perfect program out there that’s going to fix it for everybody,” Bertram said. “But a stint in jail is going to fix it for almost nobody.”
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Our partner Healing Hurt People Chicago (HHPC) was recently highlighted in Modern Healthcare that looked into all numerous exampled of “wraparound services” hospitals are implementing across the country. HHPC was highlighted for their work that goes, “beyond what some might view as hospital care, since it ties in referrals to programs that tackle social determinants of health.”
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In honor of Juneteenth, activists Alicia Garza and Liz Dozier reflect on how building long-term political power and representation for Black communities is essential to shape policy discussions, overcome historical barriers, and achieve an equitable future for everyone.