A collaboration involving The Resource Center and the Chautauqua County Jail is improving the mental health of inmates and helping inmates to successfully reintegrate into the community once they've been released.
The jail's mental health program began in the late 1980s and had a significant level of staff support until budget cuts started affecting the program. Staff reductions were made, and when the mental health consultant who previously filled the position took another job, it left a gap in the program. Conversations between Chautauqua County and The Resource Center, which provides counseling and psychiatric services in Dunkirk and Jamestown, led to an agreement to have TRC assume operation of the jail's mental health program.
The Resource Center contracted with New Vision Services to hire Yvonne Calcaterra, a master-level social worker, as the forensic mental health case manager at the jail. She was quickly able to improve the jail's mental health program.
Yvonne Calcaterra meets with an inmate.
"The first thing I do is just to provide a mental health assessment," explained Calcaterra, who began her job in January 2011. "Every day I'll get a request for someone to be seen regarding mental health-related issues, either when they go through the booking process, or (for) individuals who have been incarcerated for a while, the process is that they get a questionnaire that gives me an idea of where they stand as far as suicide or mental health."
With limited staffing and a large jail population, Calcaterra is unable to offer intensive and ongoing counseling to the inmates. "However, we do have crisis intervention," she said. "If someone was having a bad day, something went wrong, they had a bad visit, had a bad court date, the officer would call and say, 'Hey, this person's not doing very well.'" Calcaterra also coordinates with Dr. Caillean McMahon, a psychiatrist at The Resource Center, who comes to the jail once a week for three hours to make sure the inmates who especially need mental health care are receiving as much as they can.
"At Chautauqua County Jail, we have a forward-looking and innovative program with great flexibility in handling individual issues in a timely and medically appropriate fashion," Dr. McMahon said. "The continuous and quick exchange of information and ideas between components of an integrated treatment team involving nursing, case management and psychiatry allows us to provide the best possible care for individuals in an unfortunate situation."
Jail officials are grateful for the improvements in the inmate mental health program.
"Yvonne came in and really did a good job of taking a look at the program that was in place before and making some good changes that really needed to be put into action," said Captain Patrick Johnson, the jail's warden.
Calcaterra also often works with local courts to answer questions, advise and offer help to people coming into the courts who may have mental health issues. Johnson said that about 40 percent of the inmates have some sort of mental illness. Some inmates' mental health challenges are more serious, but everyone's needs must be addressed on some level.
While working to improve and expand the jail's mental health program, Calcaterra has helped develop a transition program for inmates who are being released. When jail officials are notified that an inmate soon will be released, they begin to work with the inmate to prepare him or her to transition back into the community.
Johnson explained part of the transition process.
"We identify what type of barriers that they'll have to reenter the community successfully, and so then we try to overcome those barriers. So if they have a mental health issue or problem, we want to make sure that there's a continuum of their medication," he said. "It's very, very important we identify what type of problems they have. And when they walk out, they have an action plan that they have to follow in order to stay out of trouble and stay out of jail."
The inmates also get literacy training through BOCES Adult Education at the Gateway Center in Jamestown, if needed. The staff working with the transition program try to make sure the inmates have means to provide for themselves once they're back in the community.
"What we're also doing is providing training for learning how to find a job and retaining the job," Johnson said. "And we're now having employers looking to us for inmates coming out of the jail to be employees, so we're getting them prepared for actual employment."
Calcaterra said that the transition program helps inmates "make as many connections on the outside before they leave - if they need a mental health appointment, do they need career counseling, do they need help finding a job."
The jail's staff continuously tries to improve the program, and recidivism rates have been fairly low in the program's first few months. "Our last count was somewhere around 80 (inmates) that were transitioned out, and five that came back," said Calcaterra, adding that this success rate is extremely high when compared to national recidivism rates.
Johnson is looking for ways to expand the program to include more of the community.
"One thing we've identified is we need mentors - when they get out, there's someone to turn to and talk to instead of their old contacts, which will lead them back into jail. So we're going to start working on developing mentors in the community so they develop some type of trust and relationship, so that when the inmate does get out of jail, they have someone who is kind of in a leadership/mentorship role that will help them through some of the tough times."
Calcaterra works hard to maintain both programs and help make improvements so that the inmates have a chance to do well outside jail. "Yvonne has just been spearheading this transition, being in charge of it, and since she's been there, it's just taken off and really gained momentum, gained public support," Johnson said.
Despite understaffing and insufficient funding, as well as other challenges, Calcaterra said this is exactly what she wanted to be doing with her career. She is hopeful for the future of both programs, stating, "We're working more and more to increase the programming that we have and the successes that we have."
Johnson is thankful for the work Calcaterra has done, as well as for the collaboration with The Resource Center.
"The Resource Center has become a really good partner with the jail and the sheriff's office. We're really fortunate to have them with us, and if it wasn't for our partnership that we have with them, we'd be in trouble as far as treating the mentally ill in our jail and doing any transition work, so it's a great relationship."
Michelle Williams, TRC's director of mental health services, said the collaboration has been beneficial to the community.
"We are very pleased to work with Chautauqua County Jail," she said. "We have successfully addressed mental health issues among a population that was clearly at a disadvantage as to the mental health care they receive. The work that we're doing in the jail is consistent with TRC's mission of improving the lives of persons with disabilities."
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