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Looking Back

When a Psychologist Was in Charge of Jail

Cook County Jail will soon be run by a mental health professional. And it’s not the first time.

When he announced earlier this week that a clinical psychologist had been tapped to become the next executive director of the sprawling Cook County jail in Chicago, Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart declared that Nneka Jones Tapia would become the first mental health professional to run a major U.S. jail. It turns out that the sheriff was mistaken. That very facility, home to one of the nation's largest concentration of mentally ill prisoners, was run by a psychologist from 1968 to 1977, as Melanie Newport pointed out to us on Wednesday. She is currently working on a history of the Cook County jail and shared with us this perspective on a man named Winston Moore.

This week, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced that Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist, will become the executive director of Cook County Department of Corrections. After Dart’s multi-year effort to brand the 10,000-bed Cook County Jail as the nation’s largest mental health provider, his latest hire drives home Dart’s assessment that the facility is a “dumping ground” for Cook County’s most vulnerable citizens.

Jones Tapia is not the first mental health professional to run a major jail; in fact, a psychologist ran Cook County Jail as warden from 1968 to 1970 and then as head of the Cook County Department of Corrections until 1977. When he was hired as warden, Winston Moore had worked for the state as a juvenile gang psychologist. Given that the jail’s population was 80 percent black and that Moore, himself an African-American, claimed to know the gang leaders in Chicago, he was seen as the ideal candidate for the job. Ebony magazine declared him “the best educated, best qualified man ever to hold the post.”

Moore was celebrated for his early efforts to retake the facility from powerful inmates, known as “barn bosses,” who were seen as having true control of the jail. He launched a concert series in which performers — including B.B. King and Aretha Franklin — came to sing. And he helped establish Cook County’s therapy programs and hired the jail’s first social workers.

Despite these successes, Moore’s tenure as both warden and head of the Cook County Department of Corrections was a rocky one. Having never worked in an adult corrections facility, he was tasked with supervising the jail’s expansion — from 1,300 beds to 4,000. When the County Board failed to fund staffing levels adequate for the larger jail, many of Moore’s reformist aspirations were put on hold. Cook County Jail also came under a consent decree after a series of lawsuits alleged poor conditions and guard abuse, among other claims.

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In July 1975, Sheriff Richard Elrod recommended that Moore be ousted as head of the Cook County Department of Corrections. The ensuing media firestorm — which suggested that Elrod was looking for someone to take the blame for the jail’s shortcomings — led one observer to claim “‘dunking the Darkie’ is making a comeback in Chicago.”

While Moore’s race may have played a role in his perceived scapegoating, his administration had taken a disastrous turn. After a series of more than 30 escapes, a grand jury investigation, and accusations that Moore himself beat inmates, he was fired and indicted on charges of “aggravated battery, battery, official misconduct, and perjury.”

Although the charges were later dismissed due to a lack of evidence, Moore was banished from corrections work and later installed as head of security for the Chicago Housing Projects, where he worked until 1988.

Melanie Newport is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Temple University, where she is writing a history of Cook County Jail's expansion after World War II. She writes about jail policy past and present at melanienewport.com.