U. of C. announces the launch of supportive release center at Cook County Jail

(Left to right): Pam Rodriguez, president and CEO of TASC; David Meltzer, faculty director, U. of C. Health Lab; (center): Tom Dart, Cook County Sherriff; Daniel Diermeier, provost of U. of C.; Ed Stellon, executive director of Heartland Health Outreach; and Harold Pollack, faculty co-director of Health Lab and faculty co-director of Crime Lab participate in a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Supportive Release Center (SRC), 2755 S. Rockwell St., on Wednesday, July 26. The SRC, which launched in June, is a joint initiative of the University of Chicago (U. of C.), Health Lab, the Cook County Sherriff’s Office, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), and Heartland Alliance Health. SRC will provide short-term, critical services to people upon their release from Cook County Jail. – Jean Lachat, courtesy of U. of C. 

By TONIA HILL
Staff Writer

The University of Chicago (U. of C.), on Wednesday, announced the launch of the Supportive Release Center (SRC), an initiative that will provide short-term, critical services to people upon their release from Cook County Jail, 2700 S. California Ave.

The SRC is a joint effort by U. of C.’s Health Lab the Cook County Sherriff’s Office, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), and Heartland Alliance Health.

“It [the SRC] provides free overnight shelter and connections for people released from Cook County jail,” said Daniel Diermeier, provost of U. of C. “One in three [incarcerated persons] at Cook County Jail suffers from mental illness.”

Cook County Jail is the largest site jail in the United States.

Diermeier noted that many upon release from the jail lack access to housing.

Persons being released from the jail who are struggling with mental illness, substance use disorders, or homelessness will have support from the SRC that is situated just blocks away from the Cook County Jail, 2755 S. Rockwell St.

Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart spoke of the challenges that incarcerated people face as they transition from the criminal justice system back to communities.

He said the SRC is revolutionary in that it will change how “we treat our fellow man.”

Dart said, “We have affirmatively obliterated mental health services throughout this country. They’ve [incarcerated persons] lost their job a long time ago, they have nowhere to live, end up on the street, and the people they then come into contact with are the people least able to service them, law enforcement.”

Individuals will be able to sleep overnight at the SRC and will be linked to services in the community.

In the last few years, Dart said the county had taken a different approach to treating incarcerated persons with compassion.

The problem he said was that they lacked the means to assist people once they are released from jail.

“Instead of just randomly routinely throwing people out to the streets, where you don’t know what’s going to happen, we now have this thoughtful progression where you treat and stabilize people in the correctional environment and then you hand them off the individuals who are trained to help and get them back into society,” Dart said.

Also noted, one-in-three of those leaving jail are struggling with mental illness and substance abuse disorders and are re-arrested within a few months of release, said U. of C. in a written statement.

Pam Rodriguez, president and CEO of TASC, echoed Darts sentiments she spoke of the help the SRC has been able to offer those formerly incarcerated.

“One night a gentleman came in he was addicted to heroin,” Rodriguez said. “He was homeless and if the Supportive Release Center had not been here when he left he would have been released to the streets. Instead, he came here [the SRC], and one of our case managers worked with him to get him into residential substance abuse treatment.”

As a former street outreach worker at Heartland Health Outreach, Ed Stellon who now serves as executive director of the organization said, he combed the streets with his colleagues assisting people who were homeless.

“More often than not they had a mental illness or substance abuse disorders very often both,” Stellon said. “We would start to build a connection. We would start to build a partnership, and that would be disrupted.”

Stellon said committing a minor crime has often caused the disruption, which landed them in jail.

“This [the SRC] is an opportunity for us to disrupt that on the other end, the other side of walls,” Stellon said. “So we can engage people as they come out and disrupt that chaos and start to build some order.”

Across the nation, two-thirds of jail detainees are struggling with some form of mental or behavioral health disorder, according to U. of C.

U. of C. Health Lab will be evaluating the SRC over the next two years to see how well it serves clients and communities.

“The hope is that people can use that evidence to raise more money to build it out and expand it,” said Anne Dodge, executive director of U. of C.’s Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation.

The SRC has been in effect since June. The building where it operates will be there for long-term use. Currently, the SRC serves men only but hopes to build a separate facility for women.

t.hill@hpherald.com