Archives for February 2009

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Mental Health and Offenders

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This Television Program is available at

[Video Begins]

Len Sipes: Hi, welcome to DC Public Safety, I’m your host, Len Sipes. You know, 50% of the offenders caught up in the criminal justice system claim issues of mental health. But the good news in the District of Columbia and throughout the country is that mental health programs are really helping, they really are reducing recidivism, they really are helping people caught up in the criminal justice and the mental health systems. To talk about the issue of mental health, we have two principals on the first show: Bridget Bazemore and Lois Calhoun, and Lois is the forensic service coordinator with the DC department of mental health, Bridget is a person who’s currently under the supervision of my agency, the court services and offender supervision agency, and to Bridget and Lois, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Bridget Bazemore/Lois Calhoun: Thank you.

Len Sipes: We really appreciate both of you being on the show, because this is a tough topic. This is a complicated topic, a lot of times, Lois, when you and I were talking, I didn’t get it right, I need to be further instructed in terms of the nuances of mental health, so tell me, first of all, in the District of Columbia, you’ve got a fairly comprehensive program with the D.C. department of mental health. What is the mental health situation in the District of Columbia? Let’s start with that.

Lois Calhoun: Okay. We’ve found that about 16% of the offenders that are involved in the criminal justice system at the jail, and offenders that are coming back from the CSOSA have a serious and persistent mental illness. The department of mental health focuses mainly on serious and persistent mental illness, and those are people that have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, manic depressive, and even post traumatic stress disorder. We provide a host of mental health services to those individuals. We try to connect with them while they’re in D.C. jail and they’re about to leave, and we work closely with your agency, CSOSA, to connect with those individuals that are on probation and parole to mental health services and community support services.

Len Sipes: Now it’s interesting, because many of the parolees are the people coming out of prison, they’re coming out of federal prison, and they come out of federal prisons all throughout the country, so it’s really hard doing that level of coordination if you know that, say, 2500 offenders are coming back to the District of Columbia in any given year, a certain percentage of those, as you said, 16% have a diagnosable history of mental health. It’s a formal diagnosis. 50%, according to national research, are claiming mental health issues. Coordinating all that with an individual who’s in prison in Kansas or in Virginia, that’s difficult.

Lois Calhoun: Well, for those individuals that are in Kansas or North Carolina, well first of all, North Carolina, one of the things that we do with CSOSA, and we’ll be doing it on September 30th, we have video conferencing. And we have Miss Mason, who is our DMH representative, participates in that video conferencing, and there, we had maybe about 250 individuals that are returning to the District of Columbia, and we’re able to tell them about what mental health services the department offers, and who they can contact. One of the other things that we do, we work closely with CSOSA and the bureau of prison identifying at risk individuals –

Len Sipes: Before they’re released.

Lois Calhoun: Before they’re released, yes, so we end up working with their BoP case manager, we work with their CSOs, or we definitely work with Veronica Wilson Powell, who’s with the mental health unit at CSOSA, and we work with our agencies in developing and coordinating. If an individual’s going back to their home or family, we work with the family to make sure that they’re ready to take this person and understand and we connect with an agency and make sure that all the community support service are in place prior to the release of that person.

Len Sipes: And you know what? I’m going to suggest to you that that’s unusual. I know something about parole and probation throughout the country, and I worked 14 years in the Maryland system, and I think that level of coordination is admirable. Bridget, I’m going to go to you. You’ve got a very interesting story to tell, and I’m going to tell the viewers right now that we probably can’t tell all of the story, we’ll probably do this on D.C. public safety, the radio side, so we can have a full and complete access to you, but you have been called up in the criminal justice system, you said you had a life of violence, drugs, and you’ve had issues in terms of mental health, and now that you came to my agency, the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency, and you’ve been under supervision, you’ve been involved in both treatment and medication.

Bridget Bazemore: Yes, I have.

Len Sipes: Tell me about that.

Bridget Bazemore: I’m currently supervised under CSOSA, and I’m also a client of Green Door. I have a history of being sexually abused and being raped at an early age.

Len Sipes: And that’s not unusual according to the statistics in terms of women offenders, that a majority of them claim that history, which leads them to mental health issues, which leads them to substance abuse issues.

Bridget Bazemore: Yes it is, and that’s the reason why I continue using substance abuse, because of those issues, and once I got with Green Door and began treatment, as far as my mental status, that’s when I became where I’m at now.

Len Sipes: Now, you’re doing wonderfully now. That’s the impressive thing, and I think that’s the biggest issue that I need to get across in this program, is that individuals caught up in mental illness, caught up in the criminal justice system can become functional taxpaying good citizens, productive individuals within our society, and you’re living proof of that happen.

Bridget Bazemore: Yes, I completed the program Project Empowerment, the training, I’m currently –

Len Sipes: And that’s vocational training through the District of Columbia –

Bridget Bazemore: Right, for offenders.

Len Sipes: Right.

Bridget Bazemore: And it’s a DC agency as well. And I’m currently working on a work experience, and I’m going through DC housing authority, and I’m also continuing on my treatment through Green Door, as far as seeing a psychiatrist.

Len Sipes: What is it like, because I’m not going to ask you your age, I know better, but the history, I’m assuming that this has been going on for a couple decades of the drugs, of the other stuff that you’ve been involved in, and suddenly, you’re a fully functioning wonderful human being, I’ve spoken to the people who supervise you, and they can’t say enough about you. Everybody loves the transformation, that you’ve truly crossed that bridge. What is it like being on the other side of that bridge?

Bridget Bazemore: It’s lovely being on this side of the bridge. I’m a part of society today. I can, I’m able to hold a job, I’m able to live life on life terms, I’m responsible today, I try to get young people to look up, and I try to give them my experience of being an active user, I’m also, I’m in recovery now, and it’s just lovely living on this side, because now I have a relationship with the God of my understanding, and without God’s help, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.

Len Sipes: And so many people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system make that same claim. There’s so many commonalities in terms of reliance upon friends, of reliance upon religion, of reliance upon treatment, but a lot of people in society have this throwaway sense that, if you’re caught up in the criminal justice system, I’m sorry, you know, nobody forced you to do that, we’ve got the elderly to take care of, we’ve got school kids to take care of, we don’t have money to take care of you, and yet if you weren’t involved in these programs, where would you be today?

Bridget Bazemore: I would be where I’m at today, because I chose to be where I’m at today. I got tired of living the way that I was living. I got tired of using, I got tired of stealing, lying, going back and forth to jail. Enough is enough! And I just got tired of being sick and tired, and I know that I had a mental problem, so I sought help for that. And now that I’m in treatment, and I see a psychiatrist, and I have a case manager, I’m living life on life terms today.

Len Sipes: And the thing that I want to, and Lois, the question will go to you, is that, one of the things that we have in Bridget is the system, taxpayers, save hundreds of thousands of dollars in the fact that we don’t have to re-incarcerate Bridget, there are people who are caught up, who would be victims of crime, if Bridget was still out there involved in the criminal justice system, Bridget, do you think it’s fair to say that you would be continuing your criminal activities?

Bridget Bazemore: If I didn’t seek help, yes.

Len Sipes: So Lois, so you and my agency working together, we’re the entities that actually can help these individuals make that transformation from tax burdens to taxpayers.

Lois Calhoun: Right. We find that a lot of people with mental illness are in the jails because of their mental illness, and it’s, after deinstitutionalization, a lot of people ended up going to, being arrested for some of their activities –

Len Sipes: And we need to explain that, there was a point, what, 15 years ago?

Lois Calhoun: 20 years ago –

Len Sipes: 20 years ago, that the mental institutions stopped, and they started doing community care, and that level of community care wasn’t sufficient, and many of these individuals wound up in the criminal justice system, so our jails and prisons now become de facto mental health institutions.

Lois Calhoun: Yes, and the goal is to try and stop those activities, to work with people ahead of time. Here in the District of Columbia, we’re looking at the sequential intercept model, and we’re trying to intercept individuals that are coming in contact with the police, we work with DC superior court, there’s a mental health jail diversion program, so that people that are mentally ill, instead of going to jail, they get connected to mental health services, and they’re monitored, and if their cases are doing well, then their case is dropped . For those individuals that are coming out of prison, we work with them, like I said, we connect with them early, we have several programs in the community, we have the SURE program with DCCSA, so if they’re not connected truly through Veronica Power or myself, they can walk into DC Community Service Agency Monday through Friday at particular times and be seen immediately and have assessments done and linked treatment. We have the re-entry program that works with CSOSA, the United States Parole Officer, Project Empowerment Plus, and the DC’s office, mayor’s office of ex-offender affairs, and we work with those offenders that are in the community to get them linked to services.

Len Sipes: How many, either one of you can answer this question. How many Bridgets would there be, the successful cases, would there be, if we had all the resources that were necessary, if communities throughout the country had all the resources that were necessary, how many Bridgets would there be? How many successful cases would there be, would you say? Just guess, an increase of 20%? 30%?

Bridget Bazemore: I would say 30%, but it depends on the individual, if they’re ready, if they’re ready to change their life over. See, not only have I changed my life over, I’ve also developed skills, I went back to school, and I do electrical and plumbing work, and I want to be somebody today. I want to be known as somebody, not just an addict. I want to be known as somebody that was once there and changed their life, and now I’m reaching for the moon, I may not grab the moon, but I may grab a star. I’m going to grab a star!

Len Sipes: I love that! I absolutely love that!

Bridget Bazemore: And I’m pushing and I’m striving for success today.

Len Sipes: Yeah, but so many people just get caught up in the morass. One of the things that all of us, all three of us have seen, Lois, you’ve been in the mental health issue with the mental health community for years, I’ve been with the criminal justice system for 40 years, Bridget, I’m not going to ask you your age, so that, how many years you’ve been involved in your part of it, I don’t know, but all three of us see the morass that people just get sucked into, and they never get out of it, whether it’s drug addiction, whether it’s mental health, or whether it’s the other -isms that people have to struggle with, they don’t pull themselves out. What is the key issue for you to help you make that transformation? I heard you say “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” but every junkie in the world has told me that.

Bridget Bazemore: Okay, and you said you didn’t want my age, but I’ve been a user for 32 years, and that’s been a long time to have nothing, and for society to look at you as nothing, and I just got support, family support, support from society is a great deal. I have a sponsor, my family supports me, my significant other supports me, and I just want to do something different, and a gentleman told me one time in a meeting that, “Why do you continue on doing the same thing? Do something different!” So I chose to do something different today.

Len Sipes: And that’s where we’re going to have to leave it for the first segment. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being with us, in terms of this extraordinary examination of the issue of mental health and the criminal justice system. We’re going to come back from the second half with two individuals from my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency who work with offenders called up in mental health issues every single day. We’ll be right back.

[music playing]

Len Sipes: Hi, welcome back to D.C. public safety, I continue to be your host, Len Sipes:. Our guest now, Lorenzo Hopkins, a supervisory community supervision officer, and Veronica Powell, Veronica is the CSOSA mental health program administrator, and Lorenzo and Veronica, welcome back to D.C. Public Safety.

Lorenzo Hopkins/Veronica Powell: Thank you.

Len Sipes: Veronica, the first question is going to go to you. You’ve had years of experience being the program administrator. You work with D.C. Department of Mental Health to assess individuals and get them into the best possible treatment, knowing full well that we rely a lot on medication, we don’t necessarily put everybody, because the budget’s not there, to put everybody in some sort of therapeutic treatment environment, now am I making any sense?

Veronica Powell: Yes you are. What we have done over the past 6 or 7 years is we have in house mental health consultants that are able to do screenings on our offender population, and that way, we can streamline individuals into the Department of Mental Health for those who really have the need. The screenings is basically a snapshot to identify whether or not an individual has a diagnosable mental illness.

Len Sipes: And I think that that’s the key issue here, because there’s a huge difference between depression, there’s a huge difference between a person going, undergoing some anxiety that he or she is having a hard time dealing with, and schizophrenia, and other forms, again, of diagnosable mental health conditions, correct?

Veronica Powell: Absolutely. So once the diagnosable mental illness is made, then those individuals can be streamlined to the Department of Mental Health and its core service agencies, so we work hand in hand with the Department of Mental Health, DC Department of Mental Health, and core service agencies such as Anchor, Green Door, Community Connections.

Len Sipes: Okay. Lorenzo, you’ve also been doing this for an awfully long time, supervising offenders, and at the same time, supervising offenders as part of the Mental Health unit, and a person hears about parole and probation, and all they ever hear about are these huge caseloads in other states where it’s 150 to 1, or 50 to 1, I mean, our general population is 50 to 1. Your population in terms of the Mental Health unit is, what, 25 to 1, 35 to 1?

Lorenzo Hopkins: It’s higher than that, because we’re finding that our population is starting to grow. Judges, I don’t know this, them not knowing or not being too familiar with the mental health population, but now they’re starting to refer more people for assessments based on criminal behavior. Therefore, those individuals come to our branch to receive assessments and treatments of those things, so we, my team came about because the numbers were increasing.

Len Sipes: And from what I understand, the harder we look, the more we deal with this issue, but either one of you can jump in and answer this question. The harder we look, the more instances we’re finding of offenders with mental health issues, with lots of other issues as well, not just mental health, but substance abuse –

Veronica Powell: Behavioral issues that may sometimes mimic a mental illness.

Len Sipes: Right. And sometimes it’s hard to judge one from the other.

Veronica Powell: Right, right.

Lorenzo Hopkins: And what typically happens in the past, I have a history in probation and parole, and what typically happens is people call behavior, bad behavior, vs. looking into the individual and find out what can you attribute it to, and what we’re finding is, because the stigma from mental illness, and people are more willing to talk about it is open and out there, we’re starting to get more people, more family members giving us information about an offender’s past history of mental illness: did you guys take a look at this? Where, in the past, and still today in a lot of jurisdictions, if you’re a public safety risk, or this person’s acting out, they go no further, you’re going back to jail. At CSOSA, we’ve created a partnership, where, with the Mental Health, D.C. community mental health, where we can get people assessed and really find out what’s going on with them, what interventions are needed to deal with this particular population.

Len Sipes: Now a key issue here, we in corrections sometimes have a hard time convincing people that we, society, needs to invest in mental health programs, society needs to invest in drug treatments, society needs to invest in employment programs for the offenders under our supervision, and the research, by the way, basically states that the more programs you can direct, appropriate programs that you can direct, the better off they do, the less they go out, the fewer times they go out and hurt somebody, the recidivism rate is less, the success rate is higher, but with mental health, I don’t know what side of the political spectrum you’re on. I don’t care where you come from. I think the average person recognizes that if you have a mental health issue, you’re probably going to be caught back up in the criminal justice system again, you’re either going to bother somebody or you’re going to hurt somebody unless that person is treated. Now, am I right or wrong, am I taking this too far, am I being too stereotypical? Either one.

Veronica Powell: No, I wouldn’t say that you’re being too stereotypical, and because the correctional systems and the mental health systems have identified the importance of intervention, programs such as the D.C. Linkage program have evolved to arrest or suspend that revolving door effect of individuals cycling in the criminal justice system and the mental health system, so programs are put in place to curtail some of the, I’ll call it “bad behavior”

Len Sipes: Right, and one of the things that I was impressed with Bridget, who was here in the first segment, is that my guess is that if these programs, Lorenzo, were not in place, Bridget would be out there, still part of the lifestyle, still involved in criminal activity, and still not just bothering, but possibly committing offenses against other human beings.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely, because I believe, even though society has come a long way, we still have a long way to go. What I mean by that is simply that we tend to feel safe when we hire more police officers and we build bigger prisons, but those dollars, as CSOSA has shown, are better spent, if we can keep people from re-offending in the first place, because the fact of it is most people get out of prison, you can put them away for X amount of time, they’re going to get out.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Right, we have to be able to have services in place for them, or we’re spending money on the back end vs. the front end in dealing with that offender as it relates to being in society.

Len Sipes: I’m not going to quote a lot of examples here, but anybody watching this program, anybody listening to this program through their iPod, they have heard of dozens of instances just in the last couple years of a person being involved with mental health issues, being involved in criminal activity, and the Virginia Tech shooting is certainly the first thing that comes to my mind, but there are dozens and dozens of these examples. The bottom line is that we, if they’re going to be ours, if they’re going to be on parole, if they’re coming out of the prison system, if they’re on probation, just holding them to a certain level of standards is not enough. That unless somebody intervenes, either through medication and counseling, or some sort of group activity, or job training, or the faith based community trying to help this person out, that person, in all probability, is going to continue to be a burden, if not a danger.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely. And one thing that’s different about CSOSA is that we have those partnerships with the Department of Mental Health, where we’re not just scratching the surface, saying, you need to report this day, drug test this day, call up the case manager every 30 days to see if the person is compliant with their medication. If the person is reporting, if the person becomes a loss of contact, not coming in, the case manager, one of the first people that we call. They call us. That partnership in itself is starting to produce the Bridget Bazemores that you had on your earlier segment, because those things are in place vs. saying, when Bridget talked about her history, in and out of the system, if that behavior, if we continue to do the same thing, we would have got the same result from Bridget.

Len Sipes: Yeah, and I think that becomes the key issue. Our people, the community supervision officers, and people from around the country watching this program, most people call them parole and probation agents, we interact with people on the mental health caseload, a lot of it is, have you taken your medication? A lot of it, yes, is, did you pay your fine, did you pay your restitution, did you obey your curfew, did you do this, or did you do that, but a lot of times, it’s hi, how are you, how are you feeling, are you taking your medication, are you having any issues that need to be brought to our attention, and you simply have a conversation with this person like any other human being, and I think that has an impact, I’ve spoken to other people, not just Bridget, other offenders that have been on the mental health caseload, and they said, and I find this sad, that the CSOSA folks, us, are sometimes the first people in their lives that have actually, they’ve had a meaningful relationship with, and they tried to keep them on the straight and narrow. For the first time. Other family members had given up on them, friends have given up on them, but here we are in CSOSA, we’re trying to be sure that that person goes to treatment, that he’s taking their medication, that they’re getting their job training, that they’re doing the things that they should be doing.

Veronica Powell: And one thing that that can segue into is moving the offender/consumer from compliance to commitment. They are now taking ownership, and they’re being committed to a process and a system that’s going to help them get their lives back on track.

Len Sipes: And I, just something that just boggles my mind, and the same thing happens in terms of drug treatment, and I fully understand how society looks at what I’m saying right now and are a bit skeptical, because again, there’s not an awful lot of money to go around. I mean, what about the kids, what about the elderly, what about new schools, what about economic development, boy, now you’re talking about money for mentally ill criminals. That’s not, I don’t see a lot of people in the street saying, you know more money for mentally ill offenders.

Veronica Powell: We don’t see that until, and the issue with the college killing, then people want to point fingers and blame, why didn’t the system work, what stopped the system, and then, I mean, we’re on the headlines, and then we need the funding, we need the programs in order to minimize or alleviate situations such as the Virginia Tech.

Len Sipes: And I think that’s the story, because again, it doesn’t matter where you are in the political spectrum. Can you imagine somebody saying, “Nah, I know the guy has a history of schizophrenia, ah, let him live out on the streets, as long as I don’t have to worry about it.” That person’s probably going to go out and either cause harm or cause damage, unless there’s an intervention. That’s the third time I’ve said that, I don’t think I should be saying it anymore, but that’s the truth. Lorenzo.

Lorenzo Hopkins: But what I want to leave people with it this. We’ve got to remember that it’s not just that individual that we say we don’t want to put, society doesn’t want to put money towards. You’re talking about cheating a generation of people, the Bridget Baysmores that we speak of, she has family, nieces and nephews, that are going to hopefully mimic her behavior in that she’s been trying to open her own business, and all those kind of things, so you see how invested in that one person will change a generation of people, a lot of people have children, and then –

Len Sipes: Lots of offenders have children.

Lorenzo Hopkins: If you can get them back into compliance in being productive, that’s that behavior that’s going to be seen by their children, and their children are going to grow up like that, when I say grow up like that, I mean grow up being productive citizens, see mom and dad going to work and things of that nature. If we don’t invest in that, what we’re saying is we’re going to create another generation of offenders who are shown a behavior that’s unacceptable, and that’s what they see, because most people, we’re the only social beings they see throughout their whole day.

Len Sipes: Well, that was my point, I guess that was my point, and I’ve talked to a couple people who have successfully crossed that bridge from tax burdens to taxpayers, and they’ve said that it was the CSOSA community supervision officer was the only person, and I found that sad, the only person in their lives who fought for them, and fought for them to overcome their mental health issues, fought for them to get involved in drug treatment, fought for them to get involved in job placement activities, and they’re successful today because of that, but you know, there’s got to be more than us. It’s got to be family, it’s got to be community, it’s got to be a lot of different people who are out there saying, yes, we understand that these individuals need supervision, and we’ll be more than happy to send a person back to prison, or put a person if they’ve done something wrong, but up to that point, we’re the people who try to help them.

Veronica Powell: Well, now we have the village that we’ll need to assist in rehabilitating our offender population.

Len Sipes: And I think that that’s, when I say we, I’m talking about the larger coalition between DC Department of Mental Health and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, so that’s the bottom line, it takes those sort of coalitions and funding to create those successful programs.

Veronica Powell: Absolutely.

Lorenzo Hopkins: The officer’s task is not an easy job. Our employees wear many different hats. They’re not only law enforcing federal officers, they are social workers at times, they sit there listening to problems, we have to do, they do a lot of things that really don’t get credit for by mainstream society.

Veronica Powell: And part of why we’re doing this is to make sure they get that credit.

Len Sipes: You’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you, we appreciate you being here for this very important discussion of mental health issues within the criminal justice system. Watch for us next time as we produce another very important program on the criminal justice system. Please, have yourselves a very pleasant day.

[Video Ends]