CHICAGO (CBS) — Green balloons were released into the air on Friday as the Cook County Sheriff’s Office marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Month with a short rally across from Cook County Jail.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has called the jail the largest mental health hospital in the country.

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“How screwed up is that that the largest mental health hospital is a jail? We, as a society, we’re better than that,” he said.

The sheriff said state legislators should do their jobs, and provide for the mentally ill.

“We have to have a sufficient number of community clinics. They’re outrageously cheap when you compare to how much it costs us here, so this isn’t like a break-the-bank type of thing. It’s just a question of them doing their jobs,” said Dart, a former state lawmaker himself.

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It has been estimated as many as 30 percent of the approximately 9,000 detainees at the jail suffer from mental health problems.

Cook County Sheriff’s Sgt. Charles Brazleton said when he started on the job 20 years ago, he would have considered himself a jail guard. Not now.

Brazleton said he calls himself a “corrections specialist,” because he’s specially trained to deal with mentally ill detainees.

“If you were to ask me right now ‘What is it that you do here, sarge? What do you do here on a day-to-day basis? I would have to honestly, emphatically say that we save lives,” Brazleton said.

Dart said society needs to spend more money to treat the mentally ill, instead of housing them in jails. He said it costs three times as much to house and offer support to a mentally ill detainee than inmates who are not.

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“It’s, fiscally, outrageously stupid. It’s inhumane. It’s not a way a thoughtful society would deal with people with mental illness,” Dart said.