UChicago Health Lab and community partners open center for individuals exiting jail

The University of Chicago Health Lab, in partnership with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities and Heartland Health Outreach, has opened the Supportive Release Center to provide short-term, critical services to individuals with mental health issues who are exiting jail.

The new center, located adjacent to the Cook County Jail in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, provides assistance for those who suffer from mental illness and are discharged from the system—sometimes late at night—without clean clothes, a shower, a meal or a place to go. Up to one-third of people exiting the jail suffer from mental illness.

The center began serving released individuals on June 5 and so far has served about 70 people. The partners marked the opening of the center at 2755 S. Rockwell Ave. in Chicago during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 26.

The Supportive Release Center was the recipient of a 2015 Innovation Challenge Grant of $1 million from UChicago Health Lab and the Pritzker Foundation. The grant supports the center as well as a two-year study led by Profs. David Meltzer and Harold Pollack, faculty directors of the Health Lab. The study will measure and compare the health and criminal justice outcomes of participants and non-participants using a randomized, controlled trial method to assess instances of re-arrest, homelessness and hospitalizations.

“The opening of the Supportive Release Center marks another important step in the University of Chicago’s commitment to urban scholarship,” said University Provost Daniel Diermeier. “As a partner in the effort, the Health Lab will not only evaluate the effectiveness of the center’s approach, but will also help inform future efforts that will continue to build urban knowledge and improve lives for individuals and communities.”

In addition to providing a safe place to rest for the evening, wash clothes and make phone calls, the center connects individuals to a case manager and an advanced practice nurse who can provide general health assessments, order needed prescriptions, and make appointments with and referrals to service providers for mental health counseling, housing placement assistance or other supports.

“People are often released with little notice and limited resources, which can lead to a return to an environment that is not conducive to making positive life changes,” Meltzer said. “The center is a place for individuals to pause and connect to social services and other resources that can help prevent re-incarceration and protect against the addiction or mental health problems that make them vulnerable after jail discharge.”

Pollack added that the project with the center is especially promising because of its interface with poverty, public health and criminal justice. “It is conducive to a rigorous, scientific study on an intervention that, if found to be successful, is economical and scalable enough to have a broad impact.”

Should the results of the trial show evidence that the center is effective, Meltzer and Pollack hope it will serve as a national model for a low-cost, scalable program that improves the outcomes of vulnerable populations, decreases prison rates and homelessness, and stems crime and violence within communities.

“We believe this type of partnership—between a university, the government and nonprofit service providers—can really be essential, especially in cities like Chicago where people are concerned about community violence, but are also concerned about the mass incarceration problem,” said Pollack. “There is a real hunger across the political spectrum to see these issues dealt with effectively. This is one of the interventions that we hope will speak to that and give people evidence-based optimism.”

The center project partners, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, Heartland Health Outreach and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, originally submitted three separate applications. All three applications were promising, and it was clear that the applicants had shared goals that could be better tackled together. The Urban Labs staff encouraged a “more-heads-are-better-than-one” approach, recommending a joint application that resulted in the Supportive Release Center.

“We’ve long sought to fill the vacuum of care left by the city closing many of its mental health institutions, which has directly affected the high population of those suffering from mental illness in our custody—who often get released after low-level crimes,” Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart said. “In addition to providing the essentials of a safe place to stay, the Supportive Release Center will serve as an extension of our Enhanced Discharged Planning program, in which counselors craft long-term treatment plans aimed at keeping the detainees on proper medication and in treatment upon discharge. We’re hopeful this continued support will help to slow the revolving door of incarceration for this high-risk population.”

The Health Lab is part of UChicago Urban Labs, five labs working to address challenges across key dimensions of urban life: crime, education, health, poverty, and energy & environment. The Urban Labs are a cornerstone of the new Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, which will provide a hub for the University's urban research and engagement work when it launches in 2018.