Ex-cons find hope, help through nonprofit's prisoner re-entry program

BARBARA COTTER Updated: March 25, 2011 at 12:00 am • Published: March 25, 2011

A stint in jail may be the best thing that ever happened to Urick Phillips.

Without it, he might never have met the Colorado Springs probation officer who hooked him up with the Comprehensive Healthcare Re-Entry Program. And without CHRP, he might have missed the mental health treatment he needed to address the root cause of the crack cocaine habit that got him into trouble with the law in the first place.

“I’m a changed person, pretty much,” says the soft-spoken 37-year-old. “I still have ups and downs, but I’m more able to function in society. The program just did a lot for me.”

It’s apparently done a lot for many other ex-offenders as well. Since SET Family Medical Clinics started CHRP in 2008, about 1,440 people released from the El Paso County jail or Department of Corrections facilities have taken part in the program, and its coordinator, Tina Gonzales, says only 7 percent have re-offended in that time. Three-year recidivism rates for those coming out of the state system have been running at slightly over 50 percent, according to the Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

“We feel like we have a really wonderful story to tell to the state: that this is a program that works,” says Zelna Joseph, SET’s president and CEO, and the driving force behind CHRP.

One of the key components of CHRP is, as the name implies, providing comprehensive health care for people coming out of the criminal justice system.

“We started the program on the belief that if a person is sick, if they have mental health issues and don’t feel well, it’s hard to get a job and provide for themselves,” Joseph says.

SET provides the health care and case management; then, a network of about four dozen other community agencies works together to address other barriers facing the program participants, such as employment and housing.

Mental illness and one of its close relatives, substance abuse, are huge issues in the prison and jail populations. The Colorado Office of State Planning and Budgeting reported in 2007 that the Department of Corrections had seen a 583 percent increase in the number of mentally ill offenders over 13 years, and 78 percent of DOC inmates had substance abuse problems. The problem is reflected in the patients enrolled in CHRP.

“I see mental health issues in almost all of them — major depression, bipolar, schizophrenia,” says Dr. Elliot Cohen, a Colorado Springs psychiatrist who has been in private practice for 30 years and started volunteering with CHRP last year. “I believe about half the people in prison are in there because they have bipolar manic attacks and an inappropriate impulsive response.”

People with Attention Deficit Disorder also end up behind bars, he said, because of that same impulsive behavior.

And too often, he says, people with mental health problems self-medicate with street drugs, then get hooked.

So he and CHRP’s other volunteer psychiatrist focus on making the proper diagnosis and getting patients on the right medications. That approach has done wonders for Phillips, who started exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder in his late teens and turned to crack when he was 27.

“It’s done a lot, going to see the right doctors, getting the right medicine,” says Phillips, who has been working as an assistant supervisor at Goodwill Industries for about five months. “Here, I got the best mental health service ever. I think it’s the best thing they’ve come up with, especially for people without insurance and low-income."

Lloyd Cruz, 28, also credits CHRP’s mental health services with helping him re-enter the community after spending two years behind bars for a variety of crimes tied to his long-time meth habit.

“I have mental disorders, and I’m actually getting the help I need,” says Cruz, who has been diagnosed with a list of disorders, including bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression and paranoid schizophrenia. “I’m extremely grateful. Now the voices in my head are a lot calmer, and I’m not freaking out as bad, and not holding back. I’m actually opening up. I put on a front that nothing was wrong with me. The psychiatrist is a very good guy.”

SET representatives have been going into the El Paso County jail to meet with people before they’re released and help them transition seamlessly into CHRP. Paula Presley, bureau chief with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, appreciates having a safety net for people coming out of the jail, including those who participate in a similar behind-bars program, the sheriff’s Re-integration and Recovery Program.

“It’s a continuum of care for post-release, which is very valuable to us, because it contributes to maintaining a reduction in recidivism and keeping people out of the system,” Presley says. “If all they are seeing is 7 percent (recidivism), that’s a very positive sign.”

But CHRP — even with its partner agencies — can only do so much, and Joseph realizes barriers remain.

“Employment is hard for ex-offenders,” she says. “People who have been in prison are the low man on the totem pole. Another problem is housing, because of background checks. That’s definitely the reality — it’s very difficult to get a fresh start.”

Participants, however, just seem grateful for the mental health help, especially when low-cost mental health services are hard to find.

“The biggest thing I’ve received is relief,” Cruz says. “You have people who are willing to help you, and  do what they can.”

SET started the program with seed money from Catholic Health Initiatives and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and has been operating it on about $250,000 a year. Gonzales, the program coordinator, believes it’s money well spent.

“If you put money into treatment instead of incarceration, we’re proof that treatment works,” she says. “We’re hoping people see that.”

For more information about SET Family Medical Clinics and the Comprehensive Healthcare Re-Entry Program, call 776-8850 or go to www.setofcs.org.

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