We’ve seen the same story play out too many times to count – an incarcerated individual serves their time and is released with hope for a better future. But release is just the beginning of a long and challenging road.
Many find it difficult to find work and face a lack of access to the support of mental health care services. These obstacles sadly land many back in prison. For example, 1,500 people are released from Arizona state prisons each month, yet two out of five will return to prison within the first three years post-release. That’s a 41% recidivism rate.
Together with the corrections industry, communities are taking critical steps to better support reentry for the formerly incarcerated. But we have an opportunity to break the cycle of recidivism if we can stop overlooking the importance of mental health to overall wellbeing. That starts with providing a basic standard of mental health resources for the individual and on a community-wide basis. Cutting down on recidivism is critical not only for the individual but enhances the strength and safety of our communities across the state and reduces costs to taxpayers.
For many incarcerated individuals, their time in prison is their first exposure to regular medical care, including therapy and medicine to manage mental health. But once discharged, they face the incredible challenge of finding these resources on their own – and evidence suggests that cutting them off from these services drives up recidivism. A study published last month showed that between 2010 and 2018, nearly half of inmates in Philadelphia County were back in jail within three years after release, but individuals who received behavioral health services were 26%–38% less likely to return.
One method to support this is Medication-Assisted Treatment – the use of medications, counseling and behavioral therapies – to provide a “whole-patient” approach to the treatment of substance use disorders. At my company, YesCare, we arrange follow-up appointments for individuals after they are discharged and educate them on access to resources in their community. Our research shows that this treatment not only helps prevent the recently incarcerated from falling back into drug addiction, it saves lives, demonstrating that coordinated behavioral health services upon reentry can break the cycle of arrest and incarceration.
Ensuring access to mental health care takes the work of partners across a community. We know how introductions between local providers and patients can better prepare inmates for release, and that support for jobs and life skills equip them with tools that, over time, lead to better outcomes. Of course, this relationship must go both ways; with correctional care companies reaching out and community providers reaching inward to foster long-lasting relationships with patients suffering from mental illnesses.
At YesCare facilities across the country, we are living these values by expanding our Reentry and Transition Division to safely transition patients into the community, with linkages to these 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 reliant on local and statewide community partnerships.
We can all point to an experience when we have been given a second chance in our lives. In fact, April is Second Chance month, when we raise awareness around the impact of incarceration, and try to improve opportunities for those who have finished their sentences. While many in the public may feel like the simple act of releasing someone from incarceration is the second chance, we must do better as a society.
I am optimistic that we can work together with community partners to raise the standard of mental health care and better support inmates when they are discharged. I also believe we can break the cycle of recidivism and stop treating mental illness as a crime. But, to make it happen, we must give the formerly incarcerated a real second chance and throw our full support behind getting members of our communities the resources they need to succeed.
Sara Tirschwell is CEO of YesCare.