Friday, December 6, 2013

A Visit To The Arlington County Jail

I recently had the pleasure of accompanying Lacy Whitmore, Executive Director of the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Community Services Board for a visit to the Arlington County Detention Facility. Our local CSB has a $13,000 annual contract to provide mental health services at the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Regional Jail, and Mr. Whitmore and I share an interest in improved services for that population of up to 400 (45 of these are currently housed in Augusta County's Middle River Jail due to overcrowding--the jail was built to house 208).

When we met Suzanne Somerville, director of ACDF's mental health unit, operated through a contract with Arlington County's CSB, one of the first things we learned was that this 11-year old state-of-the-art facility has been experiencing a gradual drop in numbers. Built for 600 inmates, its present census is just over 500.
Sheriff Beth Arthur

It would seem that Arlington County, with a urban population of over 212,000, would have more offenders than Rockingham,with a population of some 128.000. HRRJ is a regional facility, but well over 90% of our detainees are from our rural and small town area, and we are certainly not experiencing a decrease in our jail population.

As we toured the facility and were in conversation with Somerville and one of her colleagues, psychologist Grace Guerro, I kept asking myself whether there are other factors that might have a bearing on reducing their prison population, starting with their having a new Drug Court in their judicial system. Drug Courts are known to assign more drug offenders (involving an increasingly large percentage of court cases) to treatment programs and other alternative sentences.

Then there is an intake process at ACDF that involves a mental health person and one of the facility's 13 inmate counselors. This team is sometimes able to arrange for alternatives to detention.

Also, an increased number of the staff at ACDF, like ours at HRRJ, are taking, or have taken, "Crisis Intervention Team" training promoted by their respective CSB's. Numerous ACDF deputies proudly wore their CIT pins and spoke highly of the training. Thus jail staff and mental health providers are able to experience a greater sense of collaboration and mutual support in their work. This kind of atmosphere helps reduce the stress experienced by mentally ill persons in a prison environment and can sometimes lead to treatment options rather than incarceration.

Likewise, one wonders how effective the ACDF's intensive treatment focus might be in reducing its recidivism rate and contributing to reduced numbers of re-incarcerations. In the common area in each unit of individual cells we saw numerous therapy groups being held during our visit.

The ACDF also promotes an optimal number of work options for inmates. Many are involved in kitchen and cleaning duties, in the distribution of library books throughout the facility, and in serving as tutors for individuals in literacy and GED classes. Four work crews of five each are involved in work in the area in such roles as trash and snow removal and in the care and maintenance of other Arlington County facilities. Neither they nor HRRJ offer any work release programs, however, such as are available at the Middle River Jail in Augusta County.

The people with whom we spoke clearly believe what they and other staff are doing at ACDF is helping. They admit it may be too early to tell for sure, but they currently estimate that their "graduates" have a return rate of around 50% instead of the typical 80% number of re-offenders nationwide, and that those who do relapse are symptom free longer before returning to jail or to some treatment facility.

The jury is still out on many of the details, but any or all of these factors may be reducing ACDF's jail population. There is increased evidence that investment in prevention and treatment of mentally ill and substance dependent persons results in fewer long term costs for tax payers.

Sheriff Beth Arthur, currently president of the Virginia Sheriff's Association, has been in the forefront of reforms in Arlington's program. While we may not be able to replicate her program here, I believe we may be able to make significant improvements in how we rehabilitate, rather than simply incarcerate, our offenders.

Under Sheriff Hutcheson's administration we have already seen the following changes:

1. Inmates again have three meals a day on weekends, rather than only two as has been the case for many years. This helps boost morale in a crowded and stressful jail environment.

2. A safety blanket and smock (instead of only a paper gown) is now provided for persons confined to the isolated padded cell.

3. Ongoing Crisis Intervention Team training is being provided for jail personnel and deputies.

4. A reentry class led is being led by a team of local volunteers.

I hope we can have an ongoing conversation on how to reduce our jail population and provide better mental health services to those who need it.
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