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Chicago transitional center, program for mentally disabled prison inmates helps them learn coping skills

Monday, June 29, 2015
The News-Sentinel
by Ellie Bogue

Editor's note: After a recent look at how the Allen County Jail deals with inmates with mental illness, which is only to see that they receive medication, The News-Sentinel took a look at a Chicago program to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness returning to jail.

Sam has a nice smile. Broad shouldered and solid, his gray jail jumpsuit covers broad shoulders. His expression, determined.

For the first time he has hope for his future. Since 1983 his behavior has repeatedly bounced him in and out of Chicago's Cook County jail.

But the last time he entered the system something different happened. He was assessed during intake as having a mental illness and substance abuse problems. This put him in the mental health cell block at the Cook County Jail where within the last year Sheriff Thomas Dart has started a new program.

Dart, who recently spoke in Indianapolis at a National Alliance on Mental Illness conference for the Indiana Department of Correction, told the audience he was tired of having repeat offenders with minor offenses being bounced back into his jail time after time. He wanted to stop it. Jails and prisons have become the 21st-century's solution of where to warehouse the mentally ill, and a jail, Dart told the crowd, is nowhere to treat them.

But for Dart to deal with a jail population of inmates, which on June 24 numbered 8,300 with 1,846 of those in the mental health block, about 22 percent of the population, he needed a solution. By rearranging his staff and creating positions for three counselors and finding guards with experience in mental health he came up with a plan to help detainees go through a transition program with mental health counseling and education while connecting them to possible job sources in the community and the services they would need on the outside to keep them up on their medications.

Three phases are used in the program. The first is called, " thinking for a change," it is an evidence based curriculum used to focus on cognitive behavior changes that helps to change criminal thinking.

"It is the core of the program and is the first six weeks," said Dr. Dena M. Williams, director of behavioral health for Cook County Department of Corrections.

The key components are cognitive restructurings, problem-solving and social skills.

"The training helps change their thinking so they don't make the same choices that led them to be in jail in the first place," Williams said.

Another is the job readiness program, which is ongoing and "connecting with the community" and happens every Monday.

That's when they have guest speakers come in from the community to talk about the opportunities the inmates could have on discharge. This includes companies that hire ex-offenders as well as schools who let them know about educational opportunities. They have had speakers talk about interviewing skills, how to write a resume and what to wear to a job interview. In March they held a job fair where 17 vendors came to talk with the participants. The detainees gave them resumes they had created in the program.

The other component of the program, which they start after they complete "thinking for a change" is education. Participants can obtain a GED, or if they can take college classes to enhance what they have.

After "thinking for a change" is complete the program participants continue to have group therapy so they can build on the thinking skills they learned.

The idea was to give them the knowledge, coping mechanisms, and medical resources they would need to keep them from landing back in the system. So far the program has had some success Williams said.

Using a former boot camp across the street from the jail the inmates are bused over in two different groups, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for two and a half-hour sessions. The atmosphere, while still surrounded by a high chain-link fence with concertina wire on the top, is far less institutional than the jail. Once the program comes up with more resources and fixes a few security measures the program will become residential, Williams said.

There are four one-story blocks that will eventually be used as living quarters for the inmates in the program. There is also a gym and wide open area in the center for sports activities. Next to that is the education building where they go for classes and group counseling. There is even the beginnings of a small library. Alongside the compound is a large garden where the inmates work on Fridays. Most of the beds are filled with flowers. Across the street on the jail side is a much larger garden where vegetables are grown and sold at the downtown farmers market and also to local restaurants, along with the flowers from the mental health program. The money all goes back to inmate services.

In a classroom Wednesday afternoon a group session was going on. Nine men dressed in what look like dark gray scrubs with DOC stamped on the back discuss their feelings. They were discussing how to better cope with their triggers when they encounter them in the future. Everyone has something to say. It is clear they are making an effort.

They don't have to participate in the program, but in many ways it is a privilege. It allows them to get out of the jail environment for two and half hours five days a week. It is for the mental health detainees who were designated as higher functioning during the intake process. Eventually they will be able to live on their own in the community as outpatients.

To qualify for the program they have to have a bond of $100,000 or less and be charged with a nonviolent offense with no disciplinary infractions since they have been in custody for at least 30 days.

Right now they have 50 participants. Starting Monday they are adding another 80, as all of 50 have completed their first phase of the program.

"My problem has always been the thinking, which led to the attitude, which led to the circumstances that I have put myself into over the years," Sam said.

Sam said he has been in and out of the justice system since 1983. For the first time this program had taught him to stop and think about what he is doing before he does it.

"I used to go from zero to a hundred real fast. Or I was thinking too fast," Sam said.

Sam said being in the Mental Health Transition Center has given him the tools he needs to recognize a bad thought before he acts on it. To analyze it. He has been in the program since Feb. 2. He has been through substance abuse programs before, but this is the first one he has gotten to the root of his problem, the thinking.

"This program is exactly what guys like me need, that's why I make it my business to be here every day" Sam said.

He said he now has hope for the future. He is now very mindful of what he does and it made him realize he shouldn't focus on what he became, but on the things he needs to change.

"And that is a good thing," Sam said.

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