Mentally ill have advocate at jail

Case worker is manager, listener, link to services

`There's someone in their corner'

Howard County

December 10, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

For most people, the idea of going to jail is a terrifying proposition. For Craig Lea, it's a challenge he looks forward to every day.

A social worker at the Howard County Detention Center, Lea works with mentally ill inmates, most of whom have landed in prison because of behavior directly related to their illness. Within the prison walls, Lea serves as case manager, patient listener and a link to other services.

He makes sure they get their medication, accompanies them to bond hearings and arranges appointments with therapists.

"I think people who are mentally ill and in jail need to feel that there's someone in their corner who is not intimidated by the system and can advocate on their behalf," said Lea, 45, who has worked at the detention center for four years as part of the Community Criminal Justice Treatment Program. He is employed by the county's Mental Health Authority.

"My job is not to mitigate what they did," he said of the inmates he works with, "but to address their illness here, and make sure there's a good transition plan when they leave."

Lea said the state Mental Hygiene Administration awards money to each county to provide mental health services to inmates. It is up to the county to decide how to do that. The provider might be based at the jail, make scheduled visits or work at another site.

"I very much like this model," Lea said. "With me here, the corrections staff sees me as one of them."

Jack Kavanagh, deputy director of the detention center, said Lea's ability to recognize potential problems is invaluable.

"Our officers can learn how to approach those individuals and keep the situation from escalating," Kavanagh said.

"We don't know how many potential problems Craig's put out because of his intervention," he said.

Lea first worked with a prison population at the Prince George's County Detention Center. He found the experience rewarding and learned there was a "huge need" to address the specific problems of prisoners with psychiatric disorders.

According to a study last year by the U.S. Justice Department, the mentally ill are over-represented in prison. While 5 percent of the U.S. population have a serious mental illness, the report found that about 16 percent of its jail population have a psychiatric disorder.

Lea said it is a group that is particularly vulnerable to bullying and intimidation.

"My job is to identify anybody with a mental health issue, orient them to the facility, establish a relationship with them and work with the medical unit to make sure they're getting their medications," he said. "But sometimes they got here because that medication wasn't working, or they couldn't afford it."

The detention center's population is between 265 and 300, and Lea is working with about 10 inmates.

One of his top priorities is to ensure the safety of inmates with psychiatric disorders. For the mentally ill, the noise and activity of jail may exacerbate their symptoms, including hallucinations and feelings of paranoia.

In such cases, Lea might visit the inmate more frequently or request that he be moved to a smaller "special populations" unit.

"They're scared to death," he said. "I can listen to their concerns and come up with a plan. If somebody feels that their concerns are being addressed, they're much less likely to strike out."

As part of his work at the jail, Lea educates the detention center staff about mental illness and how to recognize active symptoms. He relies on employees to alert him to unusual behavior.

"They keep an eye out," Lea said, "because they know this group is more vulnerable."

Lea puts as much effort into preparing inmates for release as he does in addressing their problems in prison. He helps inmates to take care of the basics - food, shelter, transportation and mental health care - before their release.

"When they leave, my job is to ask myself, `How am I going to make sure they'll have every opportunity to succeed, and not get stuck here again?' "

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