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Thousands of mentally ill people in Connecticut are released from prison into crisis: ‘Not enough support’

Hartford Courant - 5/15/2023

The following article is part three of a series on mental health in the criminal justice system. 

Over 26 years of incarceration, Norman Gaines’ mind adapted to the prison environment, suppressing emotions as a response to trauma. Today what was once a survival tool is now an almost constant pain, dulling some of the smallest and sweetest moments that Gaines has hoped to reclaim since his release.

“Even being able to accept a hug from somebody, that doesn’t feel right to me,” Gaines said. “Some guys got anxiety issues, some guys got anger issues, I emotionally will shut down on you and I’ll become so quiet and just distant.”

For many men and women, the mental health challenges they faced in prison don’t stay behind at the gates.

Roughly 10,000 people are currently incarcerated in Connecticut, but the population of individuals impacted by the criminal justice system is exponentially higher.

More than 157,000 people in the state have a felony conviction, according to a 2021 report from Santa Clara University’s Paper Prisons Initiative. About 250,000 more have a misdemeanor on their record.

While the extent of this population’s mental health challenges is not yet quantified, what is known — thanks to a 2023 report from the Connecticut Sentencing Commission — is that the Department of Corrections has classified 95.5% of its incarcerated population as having currently or previously suffered from a mental health disorder, substance abuse disorder or both.

“The real question is, what happens to those folks after they’re released from the DOC and in the community?” said Dr. Benjamin Howell, the leader of the Sentencing Commission’s latest research endeavor — a part quantitative and part qualitative cohort study tackling mental health treatment in Connecticut’s post-release environment.

An assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine SEICHE Center for Health and Justice, Howell said he is hopeful that within the next year, the Sentencing Commission will be ready to share its findings on community barriers and access points to mental health care and possible associations with treatment and recidivism.

The last time the Department of Corrections performed a recidivism study was in 2012, finding that 69% of people were convicted of a new crime within five years of their release.

Howell anticipates that the absence of services could lead more men and women back into the criminal justice system. The goal is to break the cycle.

“We incarcerate too many people in this country. We know that departments of corrections are the largest mental health providers by numbers in the United States. So as we push to incarcerate fewer people, we have to understand, if they’re not going to get treatment in the DOC, where will they get it in the community?” Howell said.

Howell is hopeful that the state’s investment in this type of research will bring about real policy change. From the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to the Judicial Branch, to the DOC, Howell said the Sentencing Commission has key partnerships to get the work done.

“It’s getting all the people at the table and they all seem to have a similar goal in mind, to really tackle this problem and see the role of the DOC in the state and the role of the criminal justice system in the state be different,” Howell said.

Higher needs, staff shortages, inadequate infrastructure

According to the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management Monthly Indicator Reports, in April, 1,037 people were discharged or released from prison. More than 27% of those released are considered end-of-sentence and return into the community without community supervision from a parole or probation officer or the support, structure and shelter that court-mandated release programs provide.

Instead of going to a halfway house, the DOC drops end-of-sentence folks off at community reentry centers.

Beth Hines, the executive director of Community Partners in Action, said men and women often arrive at CPA’s Reentry Welcome Centers in a state of crisis with nowhere else to go.

“The level of mental health and addiction is much more significant than it ever has been,” Hines said. “That end-of-sentence population was often living on the streets, often relapsing, within days of being released, if not the day of release. … At any given time in Hartford, we have 30 participants who are literally living on the street.”

At the center, Hines said CPA works with more than 30 community partners and state agencies to connect clients with the services they need. From setting up Medicaid with the Department of Social Services, finding a shelter bed, learning how to use the internet and cellphones, participating in job development programs, to finding a mental health clinician, Hines said end-of-sentence participants are often starting at square one and need a holistic approach to rehabilitation.

“The primary way to prevent recidivism is to ensure people have their needs met,” Hines said.

But, in the nonprofit landscape, waiting lists for services are not uncommon and even halfway houses say they have trouble addressing the mental challenges of the people they serve.

“When I asked my staff what the number one thing they wanted is, they wanted mental health services for the clients,” said Fernando Muñiz, the chief executive officer of Community Solutions Inc., an organization that serves 325 men and women across its halfway houses. “When these programs were designed, they were designed as work release programs, right? So people who are ready to transition to the community seek employment and get stable housing. But what we’re seeing now is increasingly the folks that we’re getting have mental health needs, substance use, and sometimes, highly complex medical needs that the programs weren’t really designed to do.”

“Our case managers work to refer them to other nonprofits, to clinics to try to get them set up for services, but the needs that we’re seeing are much higher than they were, say, five or 10 years ago.”

Muniz said there’s a real interest in incorporating mental health services into halfway houses but doing so would require a significant state investment that Muniz says even community mental health providers lack.

“There are a lot of challenges that people face and unfortunately not enough support in the community right now,” Muniz said. “We have vacancies all over the system and having that many vacancies also impacts our ability to help the people that are returning to the community. We really think that’s a critical issue. The system could be serving more people if we were adequately staffed.”

Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, said that the state’s nonprofit system has been underfunded for a decade, leading to staffing shortages, waiting lists and program closures.

Since the General Assembly Appropriations Committee released its proposed budget which included a 1% funding increase for state-contracted nonprofits in Fiscal Year 2024 and stagnant support in FY2025, the nonprofit community has lobbied for more dollars. Without a significant increase, they say they cannot continue offering their wide range of services to the Connecticut public, including the programs that help those who were incarcerated successfully return to their communities.

“People who are leaving incarceration are either going to go back to their communities with skills, with help, or without, and it’s a lot better for everybody, including those returning to the community, if they go back with help,” Casa said.

When Alicia Strong, executive director and co-founder of New Britain Racial Justice Coalition saw the proposed budget, she said she was “disappointed and terrified.”

“Mental health services, especially for folks returning from incarceration and folks currently incarcerated, are essential … I think that we need to increase our investment in mental health resources all across the board and not just for folks in prison or folks coming out of prison, but also thinking of it as a preventative measure,” Strong said. “We really need to support mental health all the way from young kids, because what we see is as they get older, without that mental health support, they start to get entangled with the legal system very quickly.”

The NBRJC builds its membership from within and beyond prison walls. When currently incarcerated members are eventually released, they already have the positive connections of NBRJC waiting for them in the community.

Strong said this pipeline offers key support to returning members and has allowed the NBRJC to recognize key pitfalls in how mental health is handled upon release.

“At its core, housing is probably the single biggest issue tied to mental health, that is seriously impacting folks, who are coming out of prison,” Strong said. “If you can’t have stable housing, it’s like how do you get everything else in order? How can you expect somebody to be able to grow and cope with their mental health and they don’t even have a place to lay their head at night.”

Strong said even the rules governing halfway houses and the lack of free transportation in the state can serve as barriers to receiving care.

“When I say support, I need full access,” Strong said. “It’s not enough to just give somebody a therapist and say, ‘OK, you have to go to the therapist,’ but you’re not giving them a way to get to that therapist. It’s not right that somebody has to take three buses for three hours for an hour therapy appointment and then three buses for three hours back.”

When Eric Mejia, a current NBRJC member, left prison with an anxiety and depression diagnoses, he said he knew the post-release system well enough to self-advocate, reconnect with his previous mental health provider and make sure that he continued receiving medication and therapy.

But others in his community are not so lucky, he said.

“Once you’re involved with the treatment, they got you, you’re in there. You got to get through the door first. That’s the problem. Some people don’t get to the door,” Mejia said.

After serving 22 years in prison, Edward Andrews soon recognized gaps in post-release programming that made it too easy for some to fall back into their old habits and fail in their newfound freedom.

Determined to change his community for the better, Andrews launched the Second Chance Re-Entry Initiative Program in 2019, a multifaceted nonprofit that provides services to formerly incarcerated individuals and the Hartford Community at large.

SCRIP’s rehabilitative structure builds off of an “urban trauma” framework that recognizes how past experiences contribute to present conditions. The program connects participants with group therapy sessions, one-on-one meetings with clinicians, and other services to advance SCRIP’s model of mental health, employment, housing, skill development, mentorship and social networks.

Through self-love and self-discovery, Andrews said personal and community healing can begin.

“Many of us come home, and we are forced and rushed to get a job, but we are not really covering (what’s) underneath. We are not covering what we need to cover when it comes down to the trauma,” Andrews said. “Untreated trauma has us like a robot. We only know one way. And that way is not caring for the next person, not caring for the next person’s property, not caring for yourself and not caring for nobody else.”

“It’s important to address situations because once you love yourself, you can love thy neighbor,” Andrews added.

Andrews explained that SCRIP’s residential program isn’t a halfway house or sober house. “We call it a development center,” Andrews said, describing how men in the program learn from nutritionists, financial planners, sexologists, therapists, career development and life-skills mentors.

For the first third of the nine to 12-month program, Andrews said residents are not allowed to get jobs. “They got to just invest in themself with the wrapped around services,” he said.

Watching graduates of SCRIP programs find success with employment, housing and leadership, Andrews said that he knows the mission is working, and he’s grateful to the donors who supported his vision.

“It’s not about how many guys we cover, it’s about the quality of the services that we deliver,” Andrews said. “I’m not as acknowledged as a lot of these programs, but I know I could compete with the effectiveness and the impactfulness.”

If it were not for SCRIP, Gaines said he would never have had the opportunity to unpack his own mental health struggles, and receive his trauma response diagnosis.

“There’s so many issues dealing with mental health and the lack of resources that if people want to really have a serious discussion, we have to have panels, and we have to have legislators really looking into these issues and going inside these halfway houses and really talking to the people,” Gaines said. “We also got to get public support. And I get that the public has been traumatized by a lot of our actions, but in all reality, a lot of kids could have been saved, a lot of people could have been saved, and a lot of these actions would’ve never happened.”

Gaines said that instead of relying on literature and secondary discussions about the incarcerated population, real progress will only come from collaboration with the communities most impacted by the criminal justice system. Others agree. As Andrews said, “You can’t expect social change without social exchange.”

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