Guest opinion: Alabama must raise standard of mental healthcare to support released inmates

This is a guest opinion column

In most fields, a failure rate of nearly half would be unacceptable. This is particularly true when human lives and the safety of communities are at stake. And yet, we fail to act on the fact that nearly 44% of criminals released return to prison before they’ve been out for a year. There’s no excuse for this degree of recidivism – especially when we already have the tools, in Alabama and the rest of America, to make a big difference in the lives of people in our criminal-justice system.

Faced with a disproportionately high prison population, Alabama may have to spend as much as $3 billion over three decades on three new men’s prisons. Many state lawmakers are outraged over the cost, but few have channeled their ire into implementing solutions to Alabama’s recidivism rate, which ranges from 34% to 28%.

The lack of access to mental health services is a major contributing factor to recidivism. With the broad acceptance of telehealth, comparable to in-person behavioral health therapy, there really is no good excuse. For many, prison is the first opportunity to receive regular medical care. And once discharged, they face the incredible challenge of identifying and securing these resources on their own. Without access to care, people are more likely to reoffend. A study published in February showed that between 2010 and 2018, nearly half of inmates in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, were back in jail within three years after release, but individuals who received behavioral health services were 26%–38% less likely to return.

In addition to addressing patient mental health, we also must combat the scourge of opioid and other drug abuse and misuse in our correctional system. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) – the use of medications, counseling, and behavioral therapies – has proven successful by providing a “whole-patient” approach to the treatment of substance use disorders. Our research shows that MAT not only helps prevent the recently incarcerated from falling back into drug addiction, it saves lives. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections, an estimated 80 percent of prisoners in the state have had a history of substance abuse. It is estimated that for every dollar spent on addiction treatment programs, there is a $4 to $7 reduction in the cost of drug-related crimes.

Finally, the costs of recidivism go far beyond building new prisons. Alabama spends more than $650 million a year on its correctional system, more than $30,000 per inmate. While property crimes have been declining in the state, violent crime in Alabama has increased by 9 percent since 2005. Giving inmates the support and treatment they need not only increases their chances for success after they return to their communities, but it also cuts down on the costs of re-incarcerating them and reduces overall crime.

At YesCare facilities across the country, we are living our values ​​by expanding our Reentry and Transition Division to safely transition patients into the community, with links to resources nationwide. These services include not only making the connections to community centers that provide beds, shelter, and meal programs, but all levels of substance use disorder treatment, behavioral health, mental health, and elder care support among others, with the unwavering goal of providing a continuum of care relevant on local and statewide community partnerships.

Partnerships with local providers will help prepare inmates for release and give access to resources needed that provide support for substance abuse that will help lead to better outcomes. At YesCare, we work with people during reentry to schedule follow-up appointments for individuals after they are discharged and find them education on resources available in the community.

If we truly want to help former prisoners reintegrate into society, we have to do more. We must work together with community partners to raise the standard of mental healthcare and to better support inmates when they are discharged. We can break the cycle of recidivism if we stop treating mental illness and addiction as crimes. But, to make it happen, we must give the formerly incarcerated a real second chance and throw our full support behind getting the resources they need to succeed.

Sara Tirschwell is CEO of YesCare (formerly Corizon Health)

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