By Nadine Ono.

One key to successfully transitioning an inmate with mental illness from jail back into the community is what’s called a “warm hand-off.” It is when jail staff and the county’s behavioral health department work hand-in-hand to ensure that inmates have the resources they need immediately upon their release, including transportation, housing, medication and assistance setting up appointments.

For nearly a year, Riverside County’s Sheriff’s Department and the Riverside University Health System’s Behavioral Health Department have collaborated to change the treatment of care for the incarcerated mentally ill population as well as plan their successful transitions back into the community. The changes were initiated by a lawsuit and a court-ordered cap on the jail population. It also coincided with the release of a jail utilization study conducted by CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) team, which found that mentally ill offenders stay in the county’s jails for longer periods of time and are booked more often.

Carlee Antillon, a Riverside County behavioral health specialist, leads the discharge planning at the Robert Presley Detention Center. She explained that the transition back into the community begins long before the inmate is scheduled for release.

“About six or so months before they get out, you help them if they need housing, transportation, or felon-friendly employers, or clinics outside of here to be able to set up appointments to get medication,” said Antillon.

If they qualify, Antillon added, inmates can access AB109 clinics where they can join groups, attend sessions and get a case manager. Also available is the Full Service Partnership program at the Jefferson Wellness Center, which provides wellness and recovery-based services to the unserved and under-served population with a mental health diagnosis and who are homeless.

Before the changes were made, inmates would be released at any time of day or night with little information. “Before they were offered packets or they knew about places to go,” said Antillon, “but it’s a little bit different now that we’re scheduling appointments or upon their release date, we take them straight to the clinic to be seen.”

“The history is that we would wait to get a request form from the inmate and that request form could come from the inmate, the deputy, from medical. But it’s like we were in a crisis mode. We would just wait,” said Deborah Johnson, the deputy director of forensics for the Department of Behavioral Health at the Riverside University Health System. “Now, we’re not doing that. We are proactive. We are explaining, coming in the front door with the services we have.”

Other counties are noticing the positive impact Riverside County is making with these changes. “We’ve had other counties come and see what we’re all about,” said Tarica Coleman, the Behavioral Health Services Supervisor-Detention for the Riverside University Health System. “We’re just beginning and it’s only getting better from here and it has improved a lot, as far as offering group services to our clients here – discharge planning as well as individual therapy and crisis management. I think it’s very unique as far as Riverside County being able to implement at various levels, depending on the facility, these type of services.”

For Antillon, the successful transitions make her work worthwhile. “It gives you a feeling of happiness to know that, if you just change or help to make one successful, that’s one out of many, but there are people who are willing to get the help and want to make their lives better and not want to live in jail or prison for their entire lives.”

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Originally posted at California Forward.