Oklahoma Helps Mentally Ill Prisoners Get on Their Feet
By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
Franny Holland knows what it’s like to have to start over. She also knows what it’s like for someone to throw her a life preserver.
Holland was serving a prison sentence in California in the late '90s and had been a heroin user for 20 years. After she was released, she said, God gave her exactly what she needed—the world’s meanest probation officer. He sent her to a rehab program for six months, where she discovered she also was bipolar.
“That time in rehab allowed me to get diagnosed,” she said. “These were symptoms I had, not just character flaws like I always thought. … I was so deep in my addiction it never occurred to me that I should go see a doctor. Once I got diagnosed, it made a world of difference for me.”
The Oklahoma Collaborative Mental Health Re-entry Program tries to throw a life preserver to people like Holland. The program is one of the 2012 Innovations Awards winners from The Council of State Governments.
Bob Mann, administrator of mental health operations for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said a 2010 study showed about half of the more than 25,000 offenders in Oklahoma’s prisons either had a history, or were exhibiting symptoms, of mental illness. More than 40 percent of offenders in Oklahoma with a serious mental illness that were released in 2007 returned to prison within three years.
So the state’s departments of Corrections and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services decided they should work together with these inmates. Mental health department employees work at the state’s three prisons with mental health units.
Discharge managers meet with offenders who have a serious mental illness 12 months before their release date and ask them if they want to participate in the voluntary program. The managers work with the offender to talk about housing, their goals, their medications and how they can continue to get care for their mental illness and/or substance abuse problems.
Ninety days before the prisoner is released, a Re-Entry Intensive Care Coordination Team—comprised of a certified mental health case manager and a peer recovery support specialist—meet with him or her and continue to work with them for up to a year after release. Mental health staff also help inmates sign up for either Medicaid or disability so they have benefits when released.
“We found the agencies were able to agree where their missions overlapped to a certain extent,” Mann said. “It’s not like when they (the mentally ill) are out in the community they are the Department of Mental Health’s responsibility, but when they’re in prison, they’re the Department of Correction’s responsibility. We recognized the two agencies are serving people who, unfortunately, do travel between the systems.”
Holland, who now works with Hope Community Services as a member of a Re-Entry Intensive Care Coordination Team, said this program helps newly released inmates gain their footing and provides support to someone who has nothing.
“Most people when they get out, they don’t have someplace to go to start over,” she said. “You lose everything when you go to prison—your clothes, everything. When you’re starting over from scratch and you’ve got $50 to your name, it’s really easy to say it’s not enough to do anything, but it’s enough to score. You start right back up again where you left off. With this program, we give people an alternative to that.”
Mann said not only are people getting the help they need to lead productive lives, the state also benefits. Each person in the program costs an average of $2,700 annually. Prison, on the other hand, costs between $12,000 and $27,000 annually depending upon the level of security. Recidivism rates for participants also have decreased from 43 percent to 25 percent.
“It’s certainly a lot cheaper than incarceration,” Mann said.