Nneka Jones-Tapia, executive director of the Cook County, Ill., Department of Corrections; New York City first lady Chirlane McCray; and Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, talk about the criminalization of mental health.
Photo: University of Chicago

We want people to recognize that [the state of] our jails, our prisons, our emergency rooms—these are the results of untreated mental illness.

So said New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, during a recent visit to Chicago, telling her audience that she hopes to “disrupt” the link between mental illness and incarceration. To do so, she, as creator and leader of the mental health task force ThriveNYC, has recently introduced new initiatives specifically addressing the unique ways in which incarcerated women—and, by extension, their families—are affected by undiagnosed or unmonitored mental illness.

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ThriveNYC is a public health approach to mental health services, addiction, domestic abuse and more. This attempt at prison reform is the latest of 54 initiatives ThriveNYC proposes that “[address] risk across [a person’s] lifespan and acknowledges the impact of social determinants on individual well-being,” according to the first lady’s office.

As a result of increased services and coordinated efforts in both New York City and Chicago, in recent years the women’s prison population has decreased by approximately 30 percent in both cities. As McCray said in a recent press release:

Women in prison have unique needs and challenges while they are incarcerated. The majority of women on Rikers Island [New York City’s main jail complex] are parents and often also primary caretakers of a loved one, which means a woman’s imprisonment has a profound effect on their families and communities. Women need services that are gender-responsive while they are incarcerated and as they navigate their reconnection to their children and families, including employment-skill development and secure, stable housing.

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To address the unique and gender-specific needs of this segment of the prison population, New York City is expanding its rehabilitative programming “to support family connections and resilience, enhance critical behavioral-health services and create a network of re-entry services that help women and their families stabilize and prevent future returns to jail.” ThriveNYC is specifically addressing this by “reshaping the support system for women leaving the criminal-justice system, specifically examining the intersection between policing and mental illness, and how mental health challenges are frequently criminalized.”

According to McCray, women currently comprise 7 percent of the overall jail population in New York City. They are also more likely to have faced complex and compounded trauma, as well as resulting struggles with mental illness; 74 percent have also struggled with addiction.

Women are also more likely to be the primary caregivers in their families; yet, when incarcerated, they often don’t receive as many visitors as men, which can further impact their emotional well-being. Accordingly, increased frequency and duration of family visiting days are a vital component of ThriveNYC’s new initiatives.

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Nneka Jones-Tapia, executive director of the Cook County (Ill.) Department of Corrections, joined McCray for her Chicago appearance. Speaking with The Glow Up, she corroborated the importance of increased visitation for female inmates with families:

“Women see their self-worth a lot through relationships, so if we can have positive relationships, we see an improvement,” she said.

As part of Jones-Tapia’s role in Chicago’s prison system, she’s been implementing measures similar to those proposed by ThriveNYC, and wholeheartedly agrees with its approach to prison reform, saying, “Let’s get as many people out of the jail that don’t belong there as possible.”

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In the next decade, she said, she hopes to see “the closure of more incarceration facilities and the opening of more treatment facilities.”

Jones-Tapia further elucidated the importance of identifying mental health issues in incarcerated mothers as a protective measure for the families they leave behind:

It’s not just the woman that’s impacted, but the entire family. And if we are truly going to be a society that’s focused on the reduction of incarceration, then we need to look at every aspect of the woman’s journey in the criminal-justice system through the lens of the child. ... Only in dire cases, where there has been some victim of violence, should someone go to a correctional facility, and even in those cases, we need to do all we can to maintain the family connection between the mother and the child. ...

That’s going to be important; otherwise we’ll continue to have this cycle of incarceration in families. And I speak moreso to women because women tend to be the primary caregiver in the home. I mean, we’ve dealt with centuries of our black men being removed from the home. ... So we need to do all that we can to mitigate the removal of the woman—also the removal of the man—but to make sure that we’re focused on the needs and wants of the child first and foremost.

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The city of New York is investing $6 million into new rehabilitative efforts for incarcerated women at the city’s Rikers Island jail complex. Specifically, upon incarceration, each inmate is now assessed and assigned a re-entry counselor. Services are then tailored to each individual, meaning that a treatment-and-re-entry plan—including career mentoring and transitional employment support—is immediately put in place.

Understanding that some women may not stay in custody more than 24 hours, the idea is to intervene before they’re released, hopefully reducing recidivism. As the first lady’s press release stated:

With this new investment, we will ensure that women in prison get the behavioral health services they need to maintain healthier relationships with their children and provide families with better wraparound supports. Today, we’re taking bigger steps toward breaking the cycle of incarceration for women in New York City and changing the culture of our prison system for the better.

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To date, the infamous Rikers Island has experienced a historic reduction in women’s incarceration (23 percent). Last year, a 10-year plan was announced to close Rikers Island and create a borough-based jail system that city officials say will be “smaller, safer and fairer.” And perhaps to the surprise of many, as of 2016, New York City had the lowest per capita incarceration rate of any major city in the United States, with an incarceration rate of 167 per 100,000 (versus 229 in Los Angeles, 252 in Chicago, 338 in Houston and 784 in Philadelphia).

The changes being made in New York City could potentially be a pilot program for the entire country. Speaking with The Glow Up during her Chicago visit, McCray admitted that she’d been imploring Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to implement similar measures for the Cook County prison system. But despite the success New York City is already seeing, other cities have been notably slow to formalize their own versions of the program.

Why? McCray told us that the first problem is ignorance; people just don’t have a full understanding of the issue. The second issue, she says, is money; there is an underestimation of how much it’s costing local governments not to invest in mental health services and reform. And third, there is a lack of political will, which McCray plainly says means “there are people who are invested in the system.”

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In the aforementioned press release, McCray’s husband, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, endorsed the first lady’s latest effort, adding a very personal perspective to this crucial aspect of prison reform:

One of the greatest joys of my life was watching my kids grow up. Jail should not stop a mother from spending time with her child, or drive a wedge between families. The first lady’s efforts will make our jails more humane, and give women in prison the tools they need to break the cycle of incarceration.

Similarly, New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said:

There’s no more effective or humane way to disrupt cycles of incarceration than by reinforcing family bonds. These programs, which strengthen a visitation and support initiative that we already know works, would do exactly that.

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But speaking with The Glow Up, first lady McCray simply said: “It’s not ‘humane.’ It’s the right thing to do.”