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Home > Press Page

Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia to Become First Mental Health Professional to
Lead a Major Jail or Prison

Tuesday, May 19, 2015Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart today announced the appointment of a clinical psychologist and correctional health expert as the Executive Director of the Cook County Department of Corrections.

Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia ascends to her new role having previously served as the jail’s 1st Assistant Executive Director, overseeing the Sheriff’s mental health strategy. Sheriff Dart has long decried the criminalization of mental illness, a tragic byproduct of widespread mental health services cuts throughout the county and state over the past decade. As such, mentally ill individuals are routinely incarcerated for small offences such as petty theft, panhandling, trespassing, prostitution, disorderly conduct and substance abuse. On any given day, 25-35% of Cook County Jail’s 9,000 inmates suffer from serious mental illness, making it the largest mental health institution in the country.

Dr. Jones Tapia is believed to be the first clinical psychologist or psychiatrist to lead a major jail or prison in the United States. She transitions into the Executive Director position held since October 2013 by Cara Smith, whom Sheriff Dart has promoted to the role of Chief Strategy Officer. Chief Smith’s tenure at the Department of Corrections ushered in millions of dollars in cuts to overtime spending while reaching 100% compliance with the jail’s primary federal monitor.

“No longer can we view jails and prisons as places that happen to house mentally ill inmates – incarceration and mental health treatment have been infused, they are one and the same,” said Sheriff Dart. “Dr. Jones Tapia is ideally suited to oversee the country’s largest jail and catalyze our efforts to reform the broken criminal justice system.”

Dr. Jones Tapia joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2013 following a lengthy tenure as the Chief Psychologist at Cermak Health Services, a branch of the Cook County Health & Hospitals System which serves as the medical provider at Cook County Jail. With the Sheriff’s Office, she helped launch the Sheriff’s Mental Health Transition Center, a first of its kind facility which provides extensive therapy, job skills training and discharge planning to nonviolent inmates suffering from untreated mental illness.

“Sheriff Dart understands that pre-trial detention in jails should be reserved for violent and dangerous offenders, not poor, sick and nonviolent individuals who need treatment,” said Dr. Jones Tapia. “I look forwarding to furthering our social justice mission in this exciting new capacity.”

Dr. Jones Tapia has maintained a decorated academic career, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her master’s in clinical psychology from East Carolina University and her PsyD from the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology.

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