As Warden, Psychologist Nneka Jones Tapia ’03 Helps Mentally Ill Inmates

An East Carolina alumna is a leader in a nationwide shift in how mental health issues are handled in our nation’s jails and prisons.

Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, who earned her master’s in psychology at ECU in 2003, is one of the first clinical psychologists in the country to work as a warden. In the spring of 2015, she was named executive director of Cook County Jail in Chicago, an institution where as many as one-third of the inmates are mentally ill. With up to 9,000 detainees, it could be considered the largest mental institution in the country.

In addition to focusing on security, as wardens traditionally do, Jones Tapia is developing programs to help inmates with mental illness get treatment both inside and outside jail walls. One program she is particularly proud of is a transition center where mentally ill inmates receive therapy and job skills training to transition into the community.

“We focus on the crises of the mentally ill,” she said. “Other institutions rely on us for our expertise. Unfortunately, the reality we’ve been contending with is not going away anytime soon. We’re trying to draw attention to this issue.”

Growing up in Grifton, Jones Tapia saw several of her family members go to jail, as she recounted in a July 30 article in The New York Times.

“I know all too well what it’s like to hope that your loved ones make better decisions,” she told the paper. “And I think about my own life and how I was probably one bad decision away from being in a correctional institution myself.”

Jones Tapia didn’t even realize she was considered “at risk” until she heard the term in an elective psychology class at UNC Chapel Hill, where she completed her bachelor’s degree. After that she took a year off school to work, but she remained fascinated by psychology, believing she could continue studying it to improve her life and the lives of others. She decided to get her master’s at ECU in psychology in part because it was close to home. She completed an externship at a community mental health center in New Bern.

“My master’s degree gave me a foundation for my career. I realized I had a knack for helping underserved populations,” she said. “The professors in the program – I won’t say they made it easy, but they assisted me when I needed it.”

After her master’s, she went on to complete a doctorate at the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology. She started working at Cook County Jail in 2006. Jones Tapia says she is very proud that she got a degree from ECU.

“Throughout my life, including my time at ECU, I’ve learned the benefit of resilience,” she said. “Once you’re inspired to do something, you can do it, you just need the tools to succeed, and I try to relay that message to our detainees.”

Click here to read the full New York Times article about Jones Tapia.

By Jackie Drake

Nneka Jones TapiaPhoto courtesy of Cook County, IL.

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