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Rehabilitating mentally challenged inmates

Staff members of the Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck Community Services Board’s Warsaw office and jail personnel who work with mental health and substance abuse cases at the Middle Peninsula Regional Security Center in Saluda are, from left, Renay Mitchell, case manager; Linda Elam, jail division coordinator; Regina Lee Foster, mental health counselor; David Harmon, jail superintendent; Jayme Campagnola, jail services coordinator; and O’Connell W. McKeon, director of clinical services. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry S. Chowning

Second in a series

Community jails across the state are being used more and more as a place to house individuals who have substance abuse and mental health problems, and the Middle Peninsula Regional Security Center in Saluda has been a frontrunner for providing services to such inmates. 

When jail superintendent David Harmon took over the security center in 1989, he found that nearly 85 percent of his inmates had some kind of substance abuse problem and or mental health issue. Harmon said he could not ignore these problems.

Since there was very little rehabilitation going on within the jail, Harmon and other officials soon started introducing “pioneer” programs that have made the Saluda jail a model of how a small facility can offer help to inmates. Its efforts have gained statewide acclaim.

“We felt the jail was not just about housing inmates, but about finding ways to rehabilitate them so they don’t come back here,” said Harmon. “When they get out on the streets, they have other things that keep them from attending these rehabilitation programs, but here they are a captive audience.”

Much of this progress has been made through a working partnership between the jail and Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck Community Services Board.

Officials from the National Institute of Corrections have visited the regional jail twice for evaluations, and have concluded the jail’s rehabilitation programs are “models for the nation.”
Regional jail officials have been invited and have traveled to Florida and Georgia to explain their efforts and programs.


Currently, there is a network of people working within and outside the jail system seeking ways to help the mentally challenged and the jail’s other inmates. The jail and the Community Services Board (CSB) recently received an annual $160,000 state Jail Diversion Grant to help in this effort. 

O’Connell W. McKeon, director of clinical services with the CSB, said funds for the grant are designed to “intercept” and help the mentally challenged in five different areas. “The idea is to better manage inmates with mental illness and wrap services around them while they are in jail, and then when they get out they may not come back.”

Some of the grant funds will be used to identify people in the community with mental problems. They do not necessarily have to be arrested.

Through the grant, Linda Elam has been hired as the jail division counselor and will work with the sheriff’s offices to identify people in the community with certain mental health issues.

McKeon said many people with mental health issues can live normally if on medication, but if they go off their medicine they do not act normal. Many times it is just a matter of providing supervision for such people, and part of the grant funding will work toward that end, she said. 

Mentally-challenged people are usually arrested on petty charges such as trespassing or being a nuisance, she said.  When they are arrested, the second intercept phase helps identify their problems and provide “pretrial services” to help them get through their dealings with the magistrate, initial detention, and initial court appearances, said McKeon.

The third intercept provides rehabilitation help in jail and guidance through the court system.

The fourth intercept is to help them “re-enter” society. In the case of Mae Rosell, whose story was featured in the May 28 issue of the Southside Sentinel, the jail’s mental health counselors provided input that helped the judge determine Mae was “incompetent to stand trial.”

Now, counselor Regina Lee Foster is working to find Mae a home, and case worker Renay Mitchell is working to determine what state or federal assistance and other resources are available to Mae to help her progress with her life.

Mae is on disability and is eligible through the Medicaid program to go into a nursing home. Several homes have been contacted that have “Medicaid beds,” but to date none have opted to take her.

Mae has suffered a stroke, has a past of alcohol dependency, and has a history of running away. These things, along with being mentally challenged, make Mae a difficult person to place in a nursing home, said Foster. Because of this, Mae continues to sit in the jail with nowhere to go.

Many of the mentally challenged coming out of jail do not need to be in nursing homes, noted McKeon. Many can live on their own with just a small amount of support. 

“Part of our job, is to provide resources so when they get out, they have a place to go and some money to support themselves,” McKeon said. “The grant will provide this type of help so they can re-enter society.”

The final intercept stage is called “community correction and community support.” Some grant funds will help pay for housing costs for the mentally challenged once they get out of jail, and also for someone to monitor their taking of medications.

Some mentally challenged inmates from the jail end up in Discovery House One in Locust Hill, which is a “transitional” home where these inmates can go before being released on their own.

McKeon said she has found that when the mentally challenged are around their peers in the Discovery House, it often helps them get back on track. The Middlesex Discovery House has worked so well that a new Discovery House Two was recently completed in Warsaw. There will be an open house at that facility this Friday, June 12, at 1 p.m.

Also, the jail-CSB partnership recently received a “Peer Resource Grant” where people who have experienced mental health problems will teach computer classes, art classes, and speak to those who currently have problems. 

Jayme Campagnola, CSB coordinator of substance abuse services for area jails, said, “You need to understand these programs are not in every jail. What we are doing here [in Saluda] is a model for what needs to be done at every facility.

“We can’t say enough about Mr. Harmon and his efforts to make all this work,” she said.  “He is a pioneer in his field and he is a compassionate man who cares about what happens to the inmates here.”

posted 06.11.2009

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