The Coffee County Jail now provides support group sessions focusing on improving inmates’ mental health.
Ashley Allen, a licensed master social worker who is the mental health therapist at the jail, launched the program several months ago.
“I provide mental health care to any inmate at the facility that needs it,” Allen said. “My primary responsibility, of course, is [providing care for] people who are suicidal, homicidal and experiencing psychoses.”
Anybody who is incarcerated can request mental health services.
Launching support groups
“I also run support groups for the inmates,” Allen said. “So each pod has a support group with a different topic.”
Each section for inmates at the jail is called a pod.
Allen joined the medical team at the jail about a year ago.
“There were two mental health therapists before me, but they worked part time,” Allen said.
After county officials approved funds for a full-time mental health professional, Allen was hired.
When she took on the position, she initiated the support groups program.
“I asked corrections if they would be willing to allow me to do these groups, and they were really supportive and gave me the space and the classroom time to be able to hold groups,” Allen said. “And all of the inmates asked for it.”
Before launching the program, Allen conducted a survey, offering several options for mental health care, and the results were clear that inmates were most interested in attending support groups.
“I put out a survey and asked what they were interested in,” Allen said. “We had over 400 inmates at the jail at that time, and we had 275 respondents to the survey. About 95 percent of them asked for these groups and said they wanted to participate.”
The groups meet for one hour each week, and the session lasts for a period of 10 weeks.
Men and women participate in the program. The sessions are conducted per pod, so the groups consist of either men only or of women only.
“Right now our topics are substance abuse, relationships, parenting, stress and anger reduction, and changing lives and changing outcomes,” Allen said.
Each session focuses on one topic.
The program has been very popular and there is a waiting list for participants.
“[The sessions] run for 10 weeks,” Allen said. “Then we take about a month break, and we let new people sign up, and then we switch topics and do another round.
“The support groups are for anyone who wants to participate,” Allen said. “I put up a signup sheet and a little bit about the topic in the pods. Anybody can sign up, and then I just do a random drawing. All the names go in the hat. I choose 10 names out of the hat, and those are the 10 people that come to group.”
The individuals whose names were not selected have to wait for the next round of sessions to begin, although they are not left without care while they wait their turn.
“They can come to see me for individual counseling in the meantime,” Allen said.
The limited number of participants in the sessions is due to space limitations.
“The room is not big enough for more people to participate,” she said.
The initiative helps inmates use the time they have at the jail for improving their mental health.
“There really isn’t anything for them at the jail – there is nothing to do with their time,” Allen said. “They have a limited library where they can read books, but that’s it.
“There are no televisions, there are no programs, there is nothing. They sit all day long in the pod, with a bunch of people, with nothing to do. While people may not necessarily be interested in mental health per se, they are interested in getting out of the pod and actually being engaged and having something to do.”
And being engaged is beneficial for the inmates, said Allen.
“It takes their mind off of everything that’s going on in the back, everything that’s going on with their court cases,” she said.
Taking part in the group sessions “makes them feel free, like normal human beings,” she added.
Dealing with trauma
Trauma is the most common issue experienced by the inmates.
Most of them deal with trauma, said Allen. Treating trauma is a long process, which focuses on building relationships.
“The first step is stabilization, so it’s about making sure they are not going to hurt themselves or other people, and that they are not actively psychotic,” Allen said. “So safety and stability is number one. Once we have established that safety and security, then we start building the relationship.”
The effects of trauma, especially chronic childhood trauma, can last long after the individual is out of those dangerous circumstances.
“It happens in the context of a relationship – they are harmed by another person,” Allen said. “That makes them distrustful of others and makes them feel that the world is an unsafe place, especially when that occurs at an early age.
“Paradoxically, we know that the only thing that heals trauma is relationships, and so a lot of work goes into just building that trust and that relationship with them, and then building on that relationship.”
The next step is providing education about trauma and its effects – teaching childhood development and understanding its impact on the individual’s outlook.
“What are the things that have happened to you throughout your life that wired your brain?” Allen said. “We know zero to 3 is the age range that’s the most important. That’s when our template is set for how we view the world and ourselves in the world; that’s when all the neural connections really are formed.”
At such an early age “our map brain forms, and we, inherently, either see people as trustworthy or untrustworthy, we see the world as safe or unsafe, and we see our position in the world,” she added.
Allen then teaches the participants how that cognitive map has served them throughout their life.
“The problem is when they get older and they are in control of their life, they still have that cognitive map,” she said.
So her focus is on helping those dealing with trauma understand that process and how that happens on a neurobiological level, and then to help them see a better future and brighter possibilities.
The problem is that even if the group sessions have a positive effect, once inmates leave the facility, they usually go back to the dangerous environment that led them to jail in the first place.
There is lack of sufficient mental health support for those who finish serving their sentences.
“They get released right back into the community, the people they had relationships that are part of the world that led them to incarceration,” Allen said.
“And we know it’s about re-affiliation … that is the foundation of everything, so they need to be able to exit into a different relational context, into different support systems, into a different support network that’s going to support a new kind of life for them that does not include jail and incarceration and drugs.”
Elena Cawley can be reached at email@example.com.