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By Erin Spanier
Returning to the community after a jail stay.
It sounds simple enough on the face of it, but even in resource-rich communities like ours, more than half of Michiganders will return to jail within three years of release. And for those with mental health or substance use concerns, the risk of recidivism is even higher.
Washtenaw County is working to change that with a $1 million grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, leveraged with a $1 million match from Washtenaw County’s Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage. Both awards were received in 2019.
The first step, says Aaron Suganuma, the reentry coordinator who now oversees the county’s grant-funded reentry services, begins in the county jail when two peer outreach workers–both part of the county’s expanded reentry team–meet with people housed in the jail to better understand their needs.
Then, two case managers, also employed by the Sheriff’s Office with funding from the millage, work with these outreach workers and an interdisciplinary team of service providers to help people in the jail prepare for successful community reentry.
First, there’s documentation
“Many [employment] agencies are friendly to returning citizens” in Washtenaw, says Billy Cole, a community outreach worker on the county’s reentry team. “But you can’t get hired without a photo ID and social security card.”
The jail estimates that up to a third of the people booked lack the documentation needed for a traditional job hire. Cole helps them identify their documentation needs and then works with reentry case managers to help obtain the documents.
Next, there’s housing–which can be a critical concern in Washtenaw County
“Housing at this point in Washtenaw County is one of the most difficult things to attain,” says Cole.
Housing costs are high in Washtenaw County, while housing stock is low. Furthermore, security deposits, housing application fees, criminal record checks, and credit checks can feel like impossible obstacles for people who want to start down a new path.
“It’s hard to move forward in life without a roof over your head,” says Suganuma. “How do you get a job?” he asks. “How do you reconnect with your family? How do you provide for your family? How do you feel safe? How do you feel stable?”
The reentry initiative outreach workers and case managers work together to help people in the jail troubleshoot their housing needs, find space at a shelter, or affordable housing, or support services when they need extra assistance. And when finances are a concern, Bureau of Justice grant funds can help cover initial housing costs for up to 150 individuals.
And then there’s all the rest
Some people who are ready for community reentry need clothing–a winter coat, underwear, work clothes. Some need bus tokens to get to work, or help navigating the bus system. Some need support for recovery from drug or alcohol abuse. Some need medications to manage their mental health concerns. And some need to connect to a community-based psychiatrist or psychologist.
Even when all of these immediate needs are met, says Cole, “everybody’s not a success story.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Michigan in March of 2020, reforms have diverted most people with low-level charges away from incarceration. This has resulted in a higher concentration of people with higher-levels of need and instability who are being housed and released from the jail.
But Cole says the majority of the people he’s worked with have “shown great strides of success in their individual lives.” By one recent count, more than 200 Washtenaw County residents had successfully navigated reentry thanks to the work of Cole and others on the reentry team.
Finding their place and breaking their cycles
The most critical part of the reentry work, says Suganuma, is building an effective working relationship with clients in the jail. “Once that relationship is established,” says Suganuma, “it helps shine a light on foundational issues that have led some people to be stuck in cycles of incarceration for decades.”
Washtenaw County’s entire reentry team, says Suganuma, is “passionate about building systems that help people find their place and break their cycles [of incarceration].”
By design, each person on the reentry services team has been personally impacted by incarceration in some way. That fact alone fuels a deeper connection to the work and makes it easier to build trust with people currently housed in the county jail.
To further that work, the team has built upon an evidence-based approach–the “Transition from Jail to Community” (TJC) model–that focuses on improving processes and systems while strengthening relationships with the types of community partners who can support individuals upon release from jail.
System and process improvements that the reentry team has implemented to date include:
Screening all people in the jail for mental health and substance use concerns to inform treatment and services. About one in four of the individuals in Washtenaw County jail are there for alcohol or drug-related charges and in 2021, 30 percent of them screened positive for a serious mental illness.
Starting or continuing substance use treatment–including medications for opioid use disorder and recovery counseling–during the jail stay. According to 2021 data, nearly 35 percent of Washtenaw County’s jail population screened positive for a history of substance abuse.
Helping with housing placement and support. Roughly 40 percent of the people in Washtenaw County’s jail have experienced housing instability in the past seven years, and that data doesn’t include couch surfing, which is prevalent.
Using a trauma-informed approach, which recognizes that childhood trauma can play a significant role in people’s lives and choices far into adulthood.
Working with each individual to prepare them for release while they’re still in the jail. People in the Washtenaw County jail meet with outreach workers who have lived experience, as well as case managers. Both have significant knowledge about mental health and substance use disorders and the local health, mental health, and social service system.
Suganuma, a licensed clinical social worker who spent years working with Dawn Farm, one of Washtenaw County’s most trusted substance use treatment providers, knows that people involved with the justice system tend to have high trauma and low attachment to positive supports such as friends, family, and community.
“A lot of people in these cycles are used to going in and out of relationships. A lot have trouble with trust,” says Suganuma. “So this is an opportunity to start developing consistent and trusting relationships with people while they’re in jail and to bridge those relationships into the community.”
Cole, who will follow up with people for up to a year after release, says he lets clients know that they’ve got a good chance at success. Suganuma concurs, and says that one of the reentry team’s big goals is to normalize the idea that success after incarceration is not just possible, but probable.