As a priest, I referred numerous parishioners to Family & Children’s Services for help in dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, family dysfunction and other problems. Then, five years ago, I joined the agency myself to provide assistance to mentally ill inmates being discharged from the Oklahoma State Department of Corrections.
Not many people know about our Re-entry Intensive Care Coordination Team (RICCT) program, which arose in response to the closing of state mental health facilities. The thought was that mentally ill individuals could be appropriately treated with new and emerging medications in community settings. However, the closing of inpatient facilities came before a network of community mental health agencies could be fully developed and funded. As a result, our nation’s prisons became the “new asylums,” with thousands of mentally ill individuals – who in other times likely would have received inpatient mental health treatment – cycling in and out of jail. While incarcerated, the mentally ill rarely receive services and supports that could help them lead more productive lives and are exposed to punitive, traumatic and often dangerous environments.
That’s where RICCT comes in. We help mentally ill individuals transition successfully into community life after imprisonment. My colleagues and I often secure transitional housing, clothing and other necessities for our clients, help them obtain medications and stay compliant with treatment, and offer other supports. Without the stability and assistance RICCT provides, many former inmates who live with severe mental illness would continue to cycle in and out of prison, living their lives on installments, with little hope of ever enjoying a productive, stable life outside of prison.
The funding afforded to re-entry programs could readily be called “common sense economics.” That is, instead of building newer, bigger prisons – and diverting more criminal justice resources to warehouse mentally ill individuals – the money is being used to move individuals toward recovery, rebuild lives and restore families.