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Program aims to keep ex-offenders from returning to jail

August 16, 2009

The first two times Glen Tatro was released from prison, freedom proved temporary. He thinks his his third prison sentence, though, will be his last.

The difference is a new ex-offender program in Colorado Springs that aims to prevent inmates like Tatro from returning to crime by providing free medical care, mental health treatment and life-skills training.

The strategy is critical for inmates like Tatro, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness marked by mood swings and psychosis. Mental health treatment in prison turned his behavior around and kept him out of trouble, eliminating the voices he heard and the mania that kept him awake for days.
Because of his good behavior, he moved to a halfway house in June and has a shot at early release. But the prison no longer provides his medical care.

So the Comprehensive Healthcare Re-entry Program, launched last fall by SET Family Medical Clinics and several other local non-profits, provides him mental health treatment and medications.
The program hinges on the belief that a healthy ex-offender with easy access to medical care is more likely to get and keep a job. It will take three years to determine if it meets its goal of reducing recidivism, but cases like Tatro’s have staff optimistic that it will be a success.

“There’s no way I would’ve made it” without the program, Tatro said. “I would’ve cycled back through and gone back to prison.”

Glen’s past record is not unusual. More than half of all inmates released in Colorado commit another crime or violate their parole and return to prison within three years, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. That number has been rising in recent years.

Zelna Joseph, president and chief executive officer of SET, noticed ex-offenders were struggling to get adequate medical care, and started the program.

“They’re members of our community, and they’re going to be members of our community, and they’re going to be our neighbors,” said Jeff Lujan, the program coordinator. “The more we can do to assist them, the better.”
The strategy could save money too, Joseph said. Many ex-offenders resort to visiting emergency rooms, where taxpayers cover unpaid bills. Others end up back in state prisons.

Joseph hopes the program becomes a model for other communities.
“We’re hoping the data is clear enough to approach the government for funding,” said Joseph. “We feel like this is a huge concern for the nation.”

More than 440 ex-offenders have joined the program so far.
It was initially funded by a $375,000, three-year Catholic Health Initiatives grant. A grant given by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last month provides $475,000 over four years, allowing the program to expand.

The program has been getting 50 new enrollments each month, Lujan said. The goal is to serve as many ex-offenders as possible, and with no limit on how long they can use the services. Some have dropped out after getting jobs with health benefits.
Tatro was raised by a single mom and bounced from foster homes to group homes to juvenile detention centers.
“And then I graduated to prison,” Tatro said.
He first went to prison for possession of cocaine. A few years later, he  got an 8-year sentence for stealing a pickup spending much of the time in isolation for bad behavior.
“I wasn’t on my medications,” he said. “I hadn’t been diagnosed properly, so I got into a lot of trouble, a lot of fights.”
Released in 1998, Tatro saw a mental health provider and was put on lithium for bipolar disorder. A few years later he lost his health insurance, couldn’t afford the medications and quit taking them.
Trouble followed, including drugs .
“I lost my house, I lost my car, I lost my motorcycle, everything I had worked for after I had gotten out the last time,” he said. “So I went back to what I knew.”
In 2005, he was sent back to prison to serve nine years after getting caught with 22 grams of mushrooms. It was there that he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
“Before my mom said I scared her,” Tatro said. “My behavior around the house, I scared her. It was like night and day.”
At the halfway house, he was given a week’s worth medication. But thanks to the ex-offender program, he now has all four of his medications covered, as well as mental health exams twice a month at Mission Medical, one of the program’s partners.
“One of the great things about this program, it’s not just throwing medications at people,” Lujan said.
Tatro knows it will be hard to find a job once he’s free. He knows he’ll face the stigma of being a felon, and he’s not complaining about it.
“Before I didn’t feel good about myself but it didn’t really matter,” he said. “But now I feel good about myself to the point that I’m all right, the way I’ve been getting along in life, and this time it’s going to be a struggle.”

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