Re-entering the real world

Program hooks up inmates with community service providers

Mark Hopkins knows it’s tough out there. As re-entry program coordinator and the jail’s lead discharge planner, it’s his job to help ensure that mentally ill inmates, who often suffer from substance-abuse issues and lack direction, get the services they need after they’ve been turned loose. If they don’t get help, they could wind up right back behind bars, Hopkins recently told inmates attending the support group he supervises at the jail.

“For a lot of you guys, staying on your meds will make the difference between you staying [out there] or doing something wrong as a result of your symptoms,” he said.

Services are available for inmates when they get out, asserts Greg Sokolov, medical director for Jail Psychiatric Services. Most have been stabilized on medication and receive a month’s supply from the Primary Care Center on Stockton Boulevard the day they are released, providing a one-month window to connect with a mental-health agency and continue treatment. Inmates also receive a list of referrals specific to their needs, including shelter and housing services, drug and alcohol programs and mental-health service providers.

The trouble is, inmates don’t always follow up. One Sacramento County study found that over a two-month cycle, 103 mentally ill offenders were arrested more than once during the first month; 84 were arrested in both months.

“People think we have some involuntary measures to ensure that once people leave, they’ll follow-up with care or that we have a way to monitor them,” Sokolov said. “We don’t. That’s why interventions in the community are so important. We want to bridge that gap between jail and re-entering the community.”

Hopkins was hired to help build that bridge—and to help inmates help themselves.

“We do a lot to get people prepared to go back into the community,” Sokolov said. “But at the end of the day, it’s really their self-determination to get their meds, get hooked up with a service provider, with housing referrals. Unfortunately, a large segment of this population seems unable to do that.”

It’s against this backdrop that Hopkins works, and though he’s conscious of the statistics, he faces his job with the enthusiasm of the converted.

“Stay on your meds,” he said to the group. “I can’t emphasize that enough.” Stay away from drugs and alcohol, he told the inmates. Secure and maintain stable housing. Get and stay organized. Keep the names and numbers for service providers in one place.

Mentally ill inmates are provided with a plan that can include both practical and financial assistance. Because Supplemental Security Income and Social Security checks are stopped when a person is in jail, many inmates who would otherwise be on disability get out and discover they can’t afford to move into a new place. Hopkins directs them to agencies that help re-establish disability benefits, and in some instances connect inmates to the rare room-and-board landlord willing to take on a tenant who’s still waiting for SSI payments to begin.

There are many hoops to jump through in order to help ensure a mentally ill inmate follows through with outside service providers, and Hopkins often starts his work as soon as an inmate enters the system. It also helps that he works part-time outside of the jail, at Genesis, the mental-health clinic operated by Loaves & Fishes.

“If I have any sign that folks aren’t following through, I have them come see me at Genesis,” Hopkins explained. “That’s a luxury I have that others don’t because I work in the community. Some of these folks just need more hand-holding.”