This is a direct reflection on the work that was done to get the Community Reentry Project built. The Crime Prevention and Control Commission allocated the money to programs in order to reduce recidivism. An unintended consequence was the reduction of violence within the jail because they took the time to work with people one on one. The different avenues included putting case managers in place inside the jail.
Congratulations is on order for everyone who opened their minds and hearts to allow these changes to occur. Our dream is to have these programs in place statewide.
Inmates at the Denver County Jail are generally not a happy lot, so it's unusual for them to send thank-you notes.
But that's exactly what a number of them have done after they were placed in a new program at the jail designed to address the needs of mentally ill inmates.
Among the fan mail is a note from one inmate who says, "thank you all and blessings."
Another, who describes himself as a 20-year veteran of institutionalization of various types, wrote that the program "transformed me from a hopeless, severely depressed suicidal individual to someone who now can begin to look towards further continuing hope and the potential of successfully managing my mental health issues. I consider myself blessed to continue to benefit from the services provided."
Yet another wrote a two-page letter thanking the staff for changing his life. "You have shown me the most important lesson of all, human kindness," he wrote. "Thank you all from my heart."
The mental health program is one of several new programs implemented last year that jail officials credit for a dramatic drop in assaults and fights at the jail.
Officials report that incidents of jail violence in 2007 are down 23 percent from their levels in 2006.
Undersheriff and corrections director Bill Lovingier credits the decrease to the mental health transition unit and other programs put in place last year to assess inmates and prepare them to stay out of jail once they are released.
"Ultimately we are turning people out in better shape than we used to," he said. "They are better prepared to cope and be assimilated in the community and hopefully not get re-arrested."
Jail fights dropped 22 percent, and assaults dropped 14 percent. Sexual assaults dropped from six in 2006 to four in 2006. Suicide attempts dropped from eight in 2006 to six in 2007, a 33 percent decrease.
"In each of these categories we are seeing a significant decline," Lovingier said. "Overall, all of these programs are making a difference."
The mentally ill have flooded the nation's prisons and jails since the movement to close state mental hospitals in the 1960s, said staff psychologist Margaret Reiland. The idea was to shift treatment to community mental health centers, but that plan failed when funding for the programs was cut.
Nationwide, 670,000 mentally ill people are put in jail each year, while only 83,750 are put in state psychiatric hospitals, said Reiland, who leads Denver's transition unit.
"Jails have become the new mental health centers," she said.
Denver's mental health transition program places inmates with mental illnesses in the same unit where they receive therapy and medications and are connected with community services to help them stay out of jail once released. The idea is not to just "warehouse" the inmates until their release, Lovingier said.
"For so long, that's all that happened," he said. "They were medicated and then released to the street."
Among other things, case managers help inmates obtain Social Security cards, birth certificates and Colorado identification cards necessary to receive benefits and treatment in the community. About 80 percent of the inmates lack these vital documents, he said.