The U.S. incarcerates by far the most people of any nation in the world per capita. About 2.1 million individuals are currently held in the nation’s jails and prisons. Many are there pre-trial — that is, they have not yet been convicted of a crime. A large percentage of those incarcerated in the U.S. suffer from mental illness.
There have been several attempts in recent years to reduce the prison population, including during the COVID pandemic when some elderly prisoners and those with health issues were granted early release to home confinement.
Chicago Beyond is a philanthropic organization launched in 2016 to fight against the inequities pervasive in Chicago’s communities. The organization invests in community-led initiatives and individuals who are fighting for all youth to achieve their fullest human potential, in Chicago and beyond. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Nneka Jones Tapia, managing director of justice initiatives at Chicago Beyond, where she is a clinical psychologist and was a former warden at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Here she explains her unique approach to reducing mass incarceration from inside the system.
NNEKA JONES TAPIA: Criminal justice reform is a top priority for us, and the goal of our work is to influence systems change in carceral facilities. And I think a lot of that is due to my history working in corrections. We have close proximity and a deeper understanding of how systems can make change. And, we couple our team expertise with the expertise and wisdom of people who have worked in the system and people who have been confined in the system.
So all of us work together to support large-scale, systems-level change in carceral facilities. And that’s really a different approach. I think many times historically and currently we will have organizations that do incredible work to shift what’s happening in carceral facilities but rarely do they bring two sides together who are oftentimes at odds with each other – correctional staff and people incarcerated – bringing those two groups together to really push change further and faster.
MELINDA TUHUS: So, maybe you could just say a little bit about your previous work within the carceral system.
NNEKA JONES TAPIA: I worked in corrections for about 11-1/2 years and most of that tenure was spent at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. When I first started working there, there were about 10,000 people housed there. I had many roles there. One of them was as clinical psychologist. I helped to revamp the system’s mental health services from intake into the facility through discharge. And then I retired in 2018 from corrections after being the warden of that facility for about three years and during my tenure as warden was able to see some incredible shifts happening in the system, one of them being a population drop.
So, we worked with criminal justice system stakeholders from across the county, and during my tenure were able to see about a 20 percent drop in the people who were housed in that institution and that drop has continued and even increased with bail reform.
We also implemented a number of initiatives and reforms all meant to better support the people who were incarcerated in the system, as well as the staff. And so once I joined Chicago Beyond in 2018, it was really an opportunity for me to take the learnings from that experience that I had in corrections and really lean into the possibility for change that could occur with people who had been incarcerated in the system and with staff.
Because coming out of that system, I understood that all of us – correctional administrators, correctional staff, people who were incarcerated in the system – all of us were negatively impacted by the toxicity that existed within that system, and that is the case for every correctional system in this country.
MELINDA TUHUS: Could you just give an example maybe of the work that you did that led to the 20 percent reduction? How did that come about?
NNEKA JONES TAPIA: It really started with us being more transparent about who was in the system because community, larger society, is often cut off from what happens behind those carceral walls. It was important for us to share with people that there were many people incarcerated in the system whom we felt should not be there: people with serious mental illness. People who had committed some crime to eat. People who had been charged with crimes that were really crimes of survival.
And I think it was that narrative that really sparked a shift in the whole Cook County criminal justice system to recognize that we were doing something wrong. So that it was really the public, I think, that had an outcry and called for change. And a lot of other justice system stakeholders understood what was happening, and understood that people who were being placed in the system wasn’t equating to safer communities – in fact, it was making us less safe.
And it was through collaborations with all of the systems’ stakeholders that we were able to coordinate a shift in how bail was formed here. And judges made changes to who they were placing in the system, I think in large part due to an understanding that a lot of people had been placed there in years prior that didn’t belong there.