As I traveled home from last month's National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD), I made a couple of very interesting field trips. One brought me face to face with 30 men and 30 women-all convicted of non-violent offenses, primarily felonies-who had been released from prison into treatment at the Mentally Ill Offender Facility operated by the Bexar County Department of Community Supervision and Corrections.
The facility is one of several housed on a fenced-in tract of land on the south side of San Antonio, and is co-located with the County's Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, which houses some 90 individuals for up to six months of intensive substance abuse treatment.
These and others are part of a county-wide mental health, addiction treatment, jail diversion, family-services and homeless care partnership that was launched a decade ago by the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, Texas. The innovative community partnerships that have developed since have become something of a model for the rest of the country.
I'll be the first to admit that I didn't know much about the criminal justice or parole system going in, so I didn't know what to expect. But the locked, 12-foot-high chain link fence, topped with concertina wire, gave a strong hint. In the company of a CHCS psychologist, several San Antonio parole officers, and the facility's director, I was able to learn about what life was like for the mentally ill men and women being housed and treated there.
Each room held 30 individuals-many dressed in oversized orange sweatsuits stenciled with black letters. The accommodations were spartan, to say the least: windowless, whitewashed concrete block, lit by yellowing fluorescent lights. The sole furnishings were well-worn metal bunks-15 each in the mens' and womens' sleeping areas-and small crates between each bunk to house a small bundle of personal items.
Because I wasn't sure that my “visit” with the facility's residents was to last more than the time it took to look in on their quarters, I was a bit surprised to hear myself introduced as a visitor who had “come all the way from Cleveland.” Then, all eyes were on me. I felt like a tourist-in the worst sense-one more person strolling through their pain and difficulty, free to leave at any time that I wished. I felt really self-conscious, really uncomfortable.
But then, one individual, sitting on the edge of a bunk, caught my eye, and I stepped forward to greet him and shake his hand. Another, a couple of bunks away, asked, “What are you doing?” I looked around the room, and started to explain. “I'm Dennis Grantham and I'm editor of a magazine called Behavioral Healthcare, and I've come here to learn more about this program. I understand that it's one of the best of its kind in the country and not enough places have programs like this.” A few heads nodded, still inquiring, so I kept on.
“I'm sorry that I'm meeting you in these circumstances, but I want you to know that I think it takes a lot of courage to do what you are doing here. And, chances are that after you go through this program, none of you will ever be back in jail again (State statistics say that the program's recidivism rate is just 10 percent). I know this isn't easy, but I wanted to take a minute and wish all of you the best. A lot more people need treatment like this and aren't getting it, so I want to tell this story.”
As I turned to leave the room, I hoped that, for better or worse, I had said something to let them know that I cared about them and that their struggles-and the struggles of those who cared enough to develop the program that served them-might do some good for others. But I wondered-what do they think of me?
Moments later, as I turned up the hallway with my hosts, I heard a voice from the men's dorm. “What did he say?” I asked.
A voice behind me piped up: “He said ‘Cleveland Rocks.’”
Dennis G. Grantham, Editor-in-Chief Behavioral Healthcare 2011 October;31(7):6
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