“Imprisoned” doesn’t just mean bound behind bars in a correctional institution. For many of those who find themselves in prisons and jails, they also are held captive by something more — chemical dependency, mental health issues, the cycle of poverty.
Invisible walls also surround their families and friends who often feel caged in by the diseases and conditions that plague their loved one.
In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Justice reported that 2,217,947 people were incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 46 percent of people in prison are there on drug-related offenses. The Stearns County Jail reports that 60 percent of their inmates suffer from mental health issues.
John, whose real name is being withheld for privacy reasons, is one of those statistics. When John was a child, he had dreams of becoming a professional football player. But, by early high school, he had already begun to experiment with drugs and progressively worked up to meth, cocaine and heroin.
John, now 41, has served two prison sentences and has lost count of the number of times he’s been in the local jail. He’s been in chemical dependency treatment 10 times. This fall, John was again arrested on a probation violation.
On the day he was scheduled for court, his mother, Anne (not her real name), sat in the courtroom awaiting the latest sentence for her only child, praying that something would be different this time.
“It’s the hardest thing for me to look at my mom in the courtroom and wonder if she thinks I am a failure because of everything I’ve put her through,” John said. “That’s the toughest thing in the world.”
And it’s been hard on her, too. At times, she has received phone calls at work from the police, once saying they found John overdosed in a park.
“It wreaks havoc with your personal life, with your relationships. People don’t understand that no matter what their relationship is with John, mine is never going to change. He’s my child,” she said.
And she takes it day by day.
“It’s hard. You feel embarrassed to talk about it with your friends. You become very lonely. You become almost addicted to the addict because you are always trying to rescue them,” she said.
Just days before the court date, Anne researched options for John online.
“He is so different when he uses,” she said. “And when he’s not using, he’s the person I know and love, the kid I raised, the person that cares so much about other people. But I don’t think his body can take much more of it.”
Making the transition
That’s when Anne came across the Stearns County Release Advance Planning. The purpose of this team is to provide resources to address anticipated inmate needs upon their release with the goal they won’t return to jail again.
More commonly called the RAP program, it began in 2003 as a collaboration of the Public Health Division of Human Services in partnership with Jail Administration to create a discharge plan before an inmate’s release.
The RAP team can include key people based on the inmate’s individual needs, such as the homeless outreach coordinator, probation officers, child support officers, chemical dependency and mental health professionals, county social and financial workers and representatives from legal aid.
Jeff Pollreis, program coordinator at Stearns County Jail, said the RAP process begins with the inmate’s own interest in being part of the program.
“I get to know the inmates pretty well, especially if they’ve been here before,” Pollreis said. “So I can kind of tell who is a good candidate but they have to be ready and willing to do it for themselves. They must make that decision themselves.”
Though John was facing another prison term, the judge ruled that he would serve out his sentence locally. John requested an initial meeting with an individualized RAP team that could address his specific needs.
“He just couldn’t believe that there were people out there that wanted to help him,” Anne said. “He couldn’t stop talking about it. It gave me hope to see that he was hopeful.”
John’s team included Pollreis; a social worker; the Stearns/Benton PATH homeless outreach worker; his probation officer; a chemical dependency counselor; and a mental health professional from Nystrom and Associates.
“We sat down together to create a plan,” Pollreis said. “We looked at what he needed to do that was court-ordered, what he is going to need from a practical standpoint like housing and medical insurance and what does he himself feel he needs to be successful once released. We look at the whole person,” Pollreis said.
John expressed to the team that he felt he needed longer-term treatment, farther away from St. Cloud.
“My problem is chemical dependency first and mental health second. I do so well in treatment that I just wish I could move in and stay there forever,” John said. “It’s fine when I’m there but when I step out of the building … everything goes haywire and my coping skills go out the window.”
That’s where RAP team member Colette Neron Ellenbecker, clinical supervisor at Nystrom and Associates, steps in. The mental health firm offers Adult Rehabilitative Mental Health Services.
“We can pair clients with a worker to provide extra support every week to assist with re-entry from treatment to the community,” she said.
“We help them to stay on top of meetings and appointments, filling out forms, helping keep on track with medications, whatever we can do to make the transition easier. There’s a lot of expectations for people who are coming out of treatment and when there’s a mental health issue, it makes it even more difficult.”
John feels that boredom is his biggest trigger.
“Why I do so well in treatment is because there is so much to do. Your days are filled. As soon as I get that lull, I think, ‘What would John want to do today?’ and I know what John wants to do,” he said.
Neron Ellenbecker said ARMHS can also help combat those triggers.
“We do a lot with helping people answer the question of ‘What do we fill our time with?’ as well as some of the bigger goals, like when you get those urges, we come up with ideas of what can be done immediately,” she said.
John’s probation officer noted that recognizing these thoughts and patterns is a good step.
“All of these people are doing this for me and I sort of feel ashamed,” John said. “I don’t deserve this opportunity. I am way out of my comfort zone but I am very appreciative to everyone who believes in me.”
Model of mercy
Stearns County was the first county in Minnesota to have a RAP team and became a model for other counties. Pollreis said he’s had to prove that the RAP program is not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do.
The county collects and records data on incarcerations for RAP participants for two years before RAP services and two years after RAP services. For example, in 2010, one of the latest years for which statistics are available, there were 15 RAP participants. In the two years before RAP, those 15 inmates had been incarcerated a total of 84 times. In the two years following, there were only six incarcerations among the same 15 inmates.
According to Pollreis, the program saves the taxpayers money and increases public safety.
“Our rate of returning inmates is down. Imagine the difference of all those days an inmate is not in this building using up resources, not in detox. We’ve helped them become a better parent at home so their kids can do better at school. It’s that snowball effect. You can’t really track any of that but you can track the jail beds. It has saved literally millions of dollars,” he said.
Pollreis, a member of St. Michael Church in St. Cloud, saw the movie “Pay it Forward” long ago and it “really hit home.”
“So I try to do that every single day. For me it is so empowering to do the right thing,” he said. “It has to be influenced by faith. I can’t preach it here but I can practice it.”
Leigh Lessard, social worker and Stearns/Benton PATH homeless outreach worker, agreed.
“My parents raised me to do unto others as you would have done to you,” she said. “If I see a person in need, it’s my job as a person on this earth to help them. And whatever that looks like, if it means they get into treatment, if it means they get a mental health counselor, if it means they get on medications, if it means they find housing, if it’s a shower pass or a pair of socks, whatever that looks like for them in that moment, that’s what I need to be doing.”
Pollreis hopes he will never see John in the jail again.
“I try to tell the inmates not to give up. It’s so easy to give up when you are an inmate. You have been chipped away, damaged, kicked, destroyed, shamed. And the first door that gets closed on the outside, they are done,” Pollreis said.
“We encourage them to keep pressing forward,” Lessard added. “Everyone has value, something they can give back. They may have made bad decisions, but you don’t know what challenges they are facing, what demons are chasing them. Even if they have been in jail 256 times, the 257th time might be the time they change.”
Pollreis is willing to share his message with groups and organizations. One of the greatest needs he sees is to have positive mentors for those imprisoned. For more information, contact Pollreis at 320-259-3759.
What does the church teach about visiting the imprisoned?
This Jubilee Year of Mercy, which began on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 2015, closes on Nov. 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
Our periodic consideration of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy also concludes as we look at the instruction to visit the imprisoned. As with all the corporal works of mercy, this action is rooted in the teachings of Jesus, particularly the account of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:36, “For I was in prison and you visited me.”
Over the centuries, the corporal works of mercy have taken on new meaning as our cultural circumstances have changed. This raises the question: Who are these “imprisoned” we are enjoined to visit?
In Jesus’ own time, people could be imprisoned for debt (Matthew 18:30) as well as criminal activity. Most mentions of imprisonment in the New Testament describe disciples of Jesus being incarcerated for preaching the faith. In our own day, prison sentences can result from convictions for drug possession and illegal immigration. This raises another series of questions about the percentage of our population that is currently incarcerated (the United States has the highest prison population in the world), the need for rehabilitation, and the practice of imprisoning offenders for nonviolent crimes.
Setting all these considerations aside, we confront the undeniable fact that the purpose of prison is to remove people from community as punishment, for the safety of society, or both. Isolation often leads to desolation, a truth about our human condition that has not changed over the years.
This desolation is palpable in the prisoner’s cell under Caiaphas’ palace in Jerusalem, a site traditionally revered as the place of captivity where Jesus was imprisoned on Holy Thursday night. As a college student, I visited this place and can still recall the growing sensation of despair and isolation as our group descended the steps into this pit. The final words of Psalm 88 took on vivid meaning: “Friend and neighbor you have taken away; My one companion is darkness.”
How are we to respond to the call to visit the imprisoned? Let’s consider the Gospel reading for the Solemnity of Christ the King this year, which recounts the crucifixion scene in which Jesus promises paradise to one of the criminals crucified with him. Even in the darkest moment of his earthly life, Jesus continues to offer mercy, to be the face of the Father to those he has come to save.
We are likewise called to be the face of mercy to those in prison. Regardless of the circumstances that have put them there, they remain human, an image of God the Father, who looks on them with immeasurable love.
Maureen Otremba, a writer and workshop presenter, is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.