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9,000 Cook County Jail Inmates Enroll in Obamacare Amid Mental Health Crisis

Sheriff Tom Dart laments the lack of access to treatment for mentally ill prisoners

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9,000 Cook County Jail Inmates Enroll in Obamacare Amid Mental Health Crisis

Getty Images / Scott Olson

Two women walk toward a visitor's entrance of a maximum security detention area of the Cook County jail February 12, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says nearly 9,000 inmates have signed up for Obamacare amid a rising mental health problem in county jail.

"Systemically, over the course of decades, we've sort of carved back all the mental health services to the point where there literally was this question: 'OK well we've carved 'em back to next to nothing, now where are we gonna put 'em?' And the response was, 'Well let's just see what happens with them.' Which everyone would understand eventually means the criminal justice system for many of them, and everyone seems to be frankly OK about it," said Dart in an interview on WGN AM-720's "The Sunday Spin."

Added the sheriff: "As far as the people in government who could make a difference, the silence has been deafening on this one. ... I run the largest mental health hospital in the state of Illinois and maybe in the country, and I'm a history major who didn't seek to become a late-in-life doctor. But yet I'm the one overseeing this."

Last week, Dart published a Chicago Tribune op-ed on the subject entitled "How We Shaft the Mentally Ill."

He said some 3,000 out of 10,000 inmates need mental health care and pinned the escalating situation on closures of mental health facilities that led to increased incarceration for those suffering from illness and ballooning costs for a jail un-equipped to treat them. With Obamacare, he said they now "have the ability to at least have care paid for -- if they can find it someplace that’s still open. But that’s the big problem, to find a place that’s still open."

Dart joins a growing movement to reform a broken U.S. prison system afflicted by limited access to mental health treatment in addition to overcrowding, too-harsh prison sentences and a disproportionate number of non-white inmates.

"There's no psychologist in the world -- or psychiatrist -- who would suggest that say a treatment plan for, say, someone with schizophrenia is 'Let's put them in a four-by-eight concrete room with a complete stranger who has a different diagnosis and let's see what happens over the course of the next few months," he lamented, adding: "Nobody would do that."

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