Fighting Addiction and Mental Illness... In Jail

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In Their Own Words: Carla O'Grady and Deborah Barron

Carla O'Grady: Hi, my name is Carla O'Grady. I'm 32 years old. I'm the mother of seven.

Carla O'Grady arrived at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center about two weeks ago after spending seven months in Lake County's jail. She's spent nearly half her life in and out of the criminal justice system. Much the same is true of 33-year-old Deborah Barron, whose current stint in jail is approaching the one-year mark. According to Barron, her legal troubles are all related to drug abuse, which started with alcohol when she was 14. Barron and O'Grady were both introduced to drugs at home.

Carla O'Grady: My parents gave me drugs when I was 13. They were dealing marijuana. And when I was 17, I started using crack.

Deborah Barron: My mom was a user too. I'll never forget it. I was on the phone and she kept calling me, and I went to see what she wanted and she was standing in the bathroom with this pipe in her hand and a light in the other, and she says, Do you want some?

By then, Barron was 16. She said "No" that night, but says she tried crack not long after that and became addicted immediately. O'Grady also says her first use of crack launched her into addiction. That's not the only thing they have in common. Both were sexually abused as children. And both are mothers who have had to give up their children: four out of seven for O'Grady, one of three for Barron.

Deborah Barron: My child got taken away from me. he was one and a half years old, last month was the last time I saw him, right here in this room.

All of these traits are common among women behind bars, according to Laura Camp-Smith. She runs jail-based services for the Women's Re-Entry Network at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center, and describes her typical client this way.

Laura Camp-Smith: She's 29 years of age. She has a 9th grade education. She comes from an impoverished environment. She has two to three children. Two to three arrests. At this point she's fighting on custody or she's lost custody.

If she's like O'Grady and Barron, she also suffers from mental illness.

Deborah Barron: They had diagnosed me with schizophrenia, schizo-affective, depression re-occuring, and panic disorder, panic attacks.

Carla O'Grady: I was diagnosed six years ago under multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and manic depression.

Over 12% of incarcerated women have serious mental illnesses, according to national research. Nearly three-quarters of female inmates are addicted to drugs. And a sizable minority are dually diagnosed - with addiction and mental illness.

Michael Sage: Based upon statistical analysis, about 15 to 20 percent of the criminal population in the United States are suffering from this co-occurring disorder.

Judge Michael Sage presides over Butler County's pioneering substance abuse and mental illness, or SAMI, court. He says just one in five lawbreakers in Butler County is female, yet over half of his docket is made up of women.

Michael Sage: A larger percentage of women obviously suffer from the co-occuring disorder, and that's the cause of their criminal conduct, than men.

The SAMI Court is a post-conviction option for felony offenders who might benefit from integrated treatment in lieu of prison. But it's only one court, in one county. Most drug addicted and mentally ill offenders will wind up behind bars, where, according to the National Center for People with Co-Occurring Disorders in the Justice System, they generally fail to receive treatment that addresses all of their needs.

Reginald Wilkinson is director of Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Reginald Wilkinson: Many think we probably have the best correctional mental health system in the country.

The ODRC has been re-tooling its mental health program since the mid-1990s. Wilkinson says the changes have included increasing psychiatric staff - doctors, nurses, social workers - and creating a facility exclusively for inmates who require psychiatric hospitalization.

Reginald Wilkinson: We also created nine residential treatment units in a number of prisons, so we have a cluster of prisons who receive services that are not quite hospitalization but much more than just the typical housing we have in our facilities.

Butler County SAMI Court Judge Michael Sage says the introduction of an integrated treatment program for inmates with mental illness and addiction also has improved the system.

But it may only have improved the system for some. O'Grady and Barron have not received integrated treatment. Indeed they say their mental health treatment has suffered because of their substance abuse diagnosis. Both say they've had some of their psychiatric medications taken away from them while behind bars. O'Grady says when she's asked for her medicines back, she's been accused of drug-seeking. Both say their psychiatric symptoms are getting worse.

Whether their experiences represent the exception or the rule is unclear. What is clear, according to a variety of experts in psychiatry and addictions, is that programs that truly integrate treatment for substance abuse and mental illness are rare, within and outside the criminal justice system. Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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