By Donna Winant, FFIMI Director
The mission of Family and Friends of Individuals with Mental Illness (FFIMI) is to advocate for persons suffering from Serious Mental Illness (SMI) and involved in the criminal justice system: to assure they are provided a continuum of proper psychiatric care, treatment, and services across the entire spectrum of the legal and justice system. With this goal in mind, FFIMI committee member Bob Winant wrote and sent a letter to his local sheriff, Lew Evangelidis, on Oct. 8, 2018 requesting we meet with his department to discuss this matter as it involves his facility. Within days, we received a phone call and invitation from Superintendent David Tuttle of Worcester County Jail inviting us to come and meet with him.
On October 17, 2018, FFIMI committee member Donna Winant made contact with Dr. Brenda W. LaVar, Ph.D, Community Relations Administrator, CCRS of Texas, LLC, Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility. Dr. LaVar was aware of Worcester County Jail and assured me there were “those in charge that cared to do the right thing” in the treatment of those with SMI.
The very next day, my husband and I visited Worcester County Jail (WCJ) and were given a tour of all mental health units and departments and spoke with the Medical Director regarding mental health services. That day, we learned that Superintendent David Tuttle provides a humane model of care and treatment with all of the resources he has available.
In the realm of humane care and rehabilitative models, Superintendent Tuttle is a true visionary. On June 16 of this year, several FFIMI representatives attended the Ribbon-Cutting Opening Ceremony for WCJ/Medical Intake Building, which took five years in the planning and execution. The beautifully designed and functional modern building is a vast improvement over the old building with its broken sewer pipes, water running downwards causing collapsing walls and the health hazards that come with those conditions. The aging building was the impetus to moving forward with completion of this major project. The new building now serves as the dedicated regional intake facility for new admissions being processed for detainment and for careful assessments by medical staff.
Functionality is one of the best features of the new intake facility. There is good flow in the building making it efficient for staff to interact and to execute competent medical services. Its light, open spaces can also make it less traumatic for persons coming in for processing and for a person with SMI, this could help make for a less frightening and smoother transition by entering directly into a more therapeutic environment.
Of utmost importance to its success, Superintendent Tuttle has hired additional medical staff to oversee the needs of his most vulnerable population, those with SMI. Jennifer Dragon, Mental Health Director and Samantha Harkey, Clinical Supervisor of the Mental Health Unit, of Advocates, Inc. healthcare services are not only highly-credentialed professionals but are both passionate and compassionate in the running of their departments and in the care of those in their charge. Tuttle believes in putting the right people in place and these excellent healthcare providers are the right people. They not only serve by providing basic medical care but they also take great care to see that all therapeutic aspects of the inmates lives and well-being are taken into consideration.
Another example of choosing the correct staffing is that Superintendent Tuttle hand-picks and highly trains correction officers who will deal with, and work with, those with SMI. These correction officers excel at de-escalation tactics to ensure security while employing the most humane techniques. FFIMI members were honored to meet one of these officers, Michael O’Neil, a highly-educated and trained officer on working effectively with inmates with SMI. This is a specialized calling, one for which FFIMI is hugely grateful.
Lastly, we applaud Superintendent for his vision to also create a thirty-six bed mental health unit by repurposing a 1970 former women’s unit and Stop Program Unit (substance use disorder rehabilitation program) into an upcoming mental health unit. This specialized unit will provide a variety of ongoing programming days, evenings, and weekends. The unit has been refurbished with fresh coats of a soothing pale grey with polished floors. There is also an outdoor yard that is being landscaped by WCJ and volunteer community assistance. A holistic approach will be provided by not only working to stabilize inmates’ mental health but also to provide aids for re-entering the community upon release. Language skills (ESL), job skills, resume creation, and other tools that will assist upon re-entry of the outside world will be offered. This is what rehabilitation looks like.
Thank you, Superintendent Tuttle, for the inroads you are making in the criminal justice system and especially for those with SMI that come through your facility. It is the purpose of FFIMI to advocate for all people suffering from serious mental illness, regardless of their legal standing, for humane treatment with dignity. We advocate for a continuity of comprehensive, therapeutic, treatment-oriented mental healthcare. In that, we join hands with Superintendent Tuttle and his fine staff.