Prison Disruptor: Community mental health services

Offering Support to the Previously Incarcerated

Hopeworx is a community based mental health program that works with a number of individuals including those people who were formerly incarcerated or working to help those individuals before they would go down a path to become incarcerated. Here I am talking to Vernon Steed the Forensic advocate for Hopeworx and Sue Shannon the Executive Director of Hopeworx. 

Produced and Edited  by Kiara Patterson 

Hopeworx: Hope in a Time of Crisis

By Kiara Patterson

Access to community mental health resources can help with improving functional outcomes and the overall quality of life for individuals who are struggling with mental illness. Individuals run the risk of either ending up in jail or prison because of not having the proper treatment or access to resources to help them with their mental health. Reforms to the criminal justice system have done little to improve the conditions for those with mental illness who are serving time in prisons/jails. Instead, they have kept inmates isolated and treated them poorly while being locked up. 

The Los Angeles County Jail, Chicago’s Cook County Jail, or New York’s Rikers Island Jail have more mentally ill inmates than any psychiatric hospital in the United States. About 20 percent of inmates who are in jail, and about 15 percent of inmates who are in state prisons, are predicted to have a serious mental illness as a result of being locked up. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center website, based on the number of total inmates in the U.S. in 2014, approximately 383,000 are dealing with a mental illness or almost 10 times the number of patients that are in the nation’s state hospitals. 

Many individuals with mental illness wind up in prison because they are more likely to encounter the police first before getting medical help. Once these individuals head off to jail or prison they don’t receive the right treatment and end up becoming worse than what they were. Instead of being treated, inmates are vulnerable, locked away, and abused while being incarcerated.   

The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2017 reported that more than 37 percent of prisoners have been told by mental health professionals that they have some type of mental disorder. For instance, about 24 percent of  prisoners were told that they had a major depressive disorder, 18 percent bipolar disorder, 13 percent post traumatic stress disorder, and 9 percent  schizophrenia. In jail about 44 percent of inmates have been told the same thing by mental health professionals that they have a disorder as well. About a third 31 percent of jail inmates had major depressive disorder, 18 percent anxiety disorder, 16 percent said that they were told they had post traumatic stress disorder, and 14 percent personality disorder. 

Once released from behind bars, individuals need treatment and help in managing their diagnosis. Treatment and support can prevent recidivism and provide better health outcomes. These services can include housing to prevent homelessness, job-training programs, education, activities, and the right mental health treatment. 

Hopeworx is a program that aims to assist individuals who are in need of this treatment and support. They offer peer-to-peer services to people who are homeless and to people who have been in the criminal justice system because of their mental illness. Hopeworx provides support to individuals who are going through the criminal justice process, support at the court hearings, and meeting with incarcerated individuals to help them with the transition from jail to the community. 

Hopeworx is part of the Consumer Satisfaction Team, the Community Advocates of Montgomery County and the Hope Market. The organization came about around 1994 as an independent nonprofit. It is funded by the Montgomery County Department of Behavioral Health/Developmental Disabilities to make sure individuals are receiving quality mental health services. The Hope Market is an intentionally built micro-community that offers opportunity for individuals to get support from their peers and each other. The market also reaches out to other organizations in the Montgomery County mental health community to invite new individuals to the organization, develop new partnerships, and opportunities for the individuals coming into Hopeworx.

Sue Shannon is the Executive Director of Hopeworx. She is trying to grow the Hope Market, grow the advocacy, and work towards getting more partnerships for Hopeworx. “We never have to ask for diagnoses. Like, what are your diagnoses? Do you have serious diagnoses, or that diagnosis doesn’t fit. We can work with anybody, which is great,” she said. 

As an example, Hopeworx was able to help a young man who was suicidal get out of a sentence of  4 ½ to 9 years in prison. While this young man was at the hospital psychiatric unit, he was having suicidal thoughts and tried to hang himself on the sprinkler system with his belt that was from his robe. The pipe wasn’t strong enough to hold him, so it gave way and flooded the room. After the incident, he wasn’t sent to treatment for his suicide attempt; instead, he was arrested and charged with felony criminal mischief, tampering with fire apparatus and disorderly conduct. There he was facing the 4 ½ to 9 years in prison, and if convicted, it would cost him about $65,354 to $130,907, which he could not afford. 

According to a story on Hopeworx website, Hopeworx was able to help this young man and his mother by providing them with advice and assistance in navigating the criminal justice system. They helped the young man and his mother get all of the charges dropped, be able to pay the fine, and get him in treatment. Hopeworx's goal is to continue to give that support to individuals and their families navigating through the criminal justice system, and hopefully, stop individuals from going to jail, and instead, move into recovery services. They believe there should be more compassion and understanding instead of punishment when an individual goes through a mental health crisis. 

Hopeworx also has a program called  “It’s T.I.M.E,” a justice and recovery class that was created to help individuals think, identify risks and triggers, and change habits. It’s a peer-to-peer class that provides education to help people who need the support of learning how to restart their life and develop good decision making skills to avoid being incarcerated again. The It’s T.I.M.E program is a 14-week, 90 minutes class. 

Some individuals who spent time in this program say they feel like it helped them through their tough journey and are very thankful for this opportunity to be in. Also it’s helped them realize what got them into trouble and taught them ways to change/prevent it from happening again. It gives these individuals the opportunity to try to fix themselves there instead of going back to prison.   

Vernon Steed is a Forensic Advocate with Hopeworx. Steed, who was formerly incarcerated, now provides mentoring to individuals in this same position who are in need of support and guidance. “Someone's family might get incarcerated and they might need navigation through that, and with my background of being formerly incarcerated, I help them navigate some of the pitfalls that a lot of families aren’t familiar with. I also teach a class at Montgomery County Facility and I hope and inspire men that they can get out of jail one day and do positive things,” he said.

Shannon ultimately describes Hopeworx this way: “A place where people can go without a diagnosis or a referral and spend up to 7 days to take the time to get through whatever you're going through, crisis wise. They also get to do it with other people who have lived experience who are there to help,” she said. 

Hopeworx: A Community Mental Health Peer Respite

Hopeworx is a community based mental health program that works with a number of individuals including those people who were formerly incarcerated or working to help those individuals before they would go down a path to become incarcerated.

Produced and Edited by Kiara Patterson


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