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Nancy White Nov 26, 2012

HOLIDAY DREAMS: Chronically Mentally Ill Incarcerated in the Criminal Justice System

As I sit at my desk, the day before Thanksgiving, the start of the holiday season, I think of all the things in my life that I am most thankful for. Included in my thoughts is the fact that I am not incarcerated. Not that I have ever done anything to be incarcerated for, but after working in the criminal justice system for over 30 years, the fact that I can go home to my own life after work, is something that I am very thankful for.

I definitely think about the men and women who are incarcerated over the holiday season, those with a chronic and persistent mental illness, being at the top of my list. They will miss seeing their children and grandchildren unless the family comes to visit at the institution. It is just not the same as being at home, to be able to watch your family enjoy the holiday season, play outside, ride bicycles, or maybe shovel snow. When visiting the institution, you always know that you are in a jail or prison. You are always reminded by the sights, the sounds and the smells.

So, here is another holiday season, with chronically mentally ill clients locked up. I always thought that our country was smart enough to find some other solution and other ways to care and deal with this problem. Please don’t get me wrong. In the last 12-15 years we have started some fantastic programming for these clients. Mental Health Courts have sprung up all over the country and these specialty courts are definitely diverting clients out of the criminal justice system and into the mental health system for treatment. Drug Courts are doing the same for their clients. CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) programs have also been started all over the country and police and other law enforcement officers are being trained to work with the mentally ill citizen.

Many of the newest medications are assisting psychiatric clients to live a full, rewarding and productive life. We talk with clients about “getting well.” It is not often that our jails and prisons have a budget that will allow them to use these new medications.

While I know that I have a lot to be thankful for including the fact that our clients are getting better care in the criminal justice system than ever before, I can still dream, can’t I?

Nancy White is a counselor who has spent much of her professional life working in corrections.

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