Stepping stones to freedom

Posted 1/29/11

Moving day was a big day for Felicia, a 34-year-old who looks at every day as a new possibility. Moving day for Felicia could also be called …

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Stepping stones to freedom


Moving day was a big day for Felicia, a 34-year-old who looks at every day as a new possibility. Moving day for Felicia could also be called “starting over” day, as she makes her way from a future behind bars toward one with a purpose.

Felicia is a participant in the 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court, which aims to stop the prison cycle of habitual offenders with a treatment program geared toward full recovery. On Jan. 26, Felicia gained her reward for “phasing up” through the program to an apartment building renovated by federal stimulus money. She is one of five clients to begin the next step toward independent living within the walls of what was once a haven for drug dealers and junkies.

Like every person under the wing of the 18th Judicial District’s mental health court, Felicia considers herself lucky.

“I look at it as a blessing that I fell into Arapahoe County,” Felicia said. “Otherwise I would be in prison for the rest of my life.”

Felicia, who uses an alias for this report, was sitting in the Arapahoe County jail when she came to the attention of the staff at the mental health court. As a successful candidate for the mental health court program, Felicia was eligible to plea down a multi-year prison sentence to participation in the two-year mental health court program. Follow up beyond the two years depends on the individual case and can include probation or treatment, depending on the participant, said Gina Shimeall, mental health court coordinator.

Funded by federal grant money, contributions from Arapahoe County and the Colorado State Judicial Branch and the support of the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network (ADMHN), the mental health court is a year-old program that identifies and treats inmates with sustained, prolonged mental illness, Shimeall said.

Inmates who become eligible for mental health court undergo a series of examinations by the staff at the mental health network, which provides the therapy and programming to guide participants toward a life outside of prison. Eligibility requires the stamp of approval from the office of District Attorney Carol Chambers, the defense attorney, the court and the mental health network.

So far, out of about 150 defendants who have applied for consideration, 30 have gained approval. Felicia is among those who have stepped outside the prison walls into a program that begins with at least six weeks of orientation and stabilization, “Phase I” of the four-phase program.

In Phase I, participants are introduced to the concept of responsibility in their self-care. Therapists begin by establishing guidelines with a goal toward developing trust and reliability between patient and therapist. Most of the participants experience some form of substance abuse, a lifestyle considered a contributing factor in their criminal choices, Shimeall said.

One of the first orders of business is to master the art of overcoming self-abusing habits, she said. In Phase I, participants learn about their mental health and substance abuse issues, face clear behavioral expectations and are held accountable for their choices.

To move into the next phase, participants engage in daily therapies, must remain drug-free, become familiar with their mental health condition and treatment and are rewarded through a point system based on basic behavioral expectations. Each participant can earn up to five points per week, for compliance in areas such as curfews, clean drug tests and personal conduct. Each week, participants appear in court to check in with the court magistrate, who announces the number of days they have stayed sober, the number of points they earned for the week and expectations from the court.

Felicia was among those in a recent court hearing to find she earned the reward of phasing up to her own apartment.

“A lot of our participants have been homeless and are truly appreciative of have a home,” Shimeall said.

To move up to Phase II, Felicia will be expected to take “action steps” toward lifestyle change and recovery. She will work on problem solving skills, communication skills, anger management, nutrition and more. Phase II takes a minimum of nine months and includes expectations to gain employment toward self support, learn how to find reliable housing, maintain a personal budget and engage in positive hobbies or activities.

Felicia is joined in this quest by Dale E., who has been in the program for more than a year. Dale was in and out of jail most of his adult life and faced years in prison when he qualified for mental health court. Dale is a former meth addict and homeless person who is several months into his Phase II goal.

Dale spends three days of the week working at Providers Resource Clearinghouse (PRC) in Denver, where he is learning job skills, work behaviors and job-related skills aimed to sustain him beyond the program walls. The clearinghouse is a nonprofit agency under the umbrella of the Aurora Mental Health Center, which specializes in vocational training for the Dales of the world.

PRC accepts donations of new and used office and household furniture, equipment and supplies to restore the items and make them available to nonprofits at significant savings, said Executive Director Karen Terry. In fewer than two months, Dale has moved his way through the warehouse to find a niche at the small electronics desk.

Through his work at PRC Dale discovered a hidden talent for repairing small electronics and appliances. With no formal training, Dale is the PRC go-to guy to get broken items up and running again.

“I’ve always been a tinkerer, I love this kind of stuff,” Dale said. “It feels good to get something that says ‘not working’ and get it working again.”

Once Dale is deemed ready, he will move on to Phase III, where he will be expected to make concrete lifestyle changes and learn to master coping skills. Phase III participants are usually required to make fewer court appearances, gain more freedoms and develop skills to avoid repeating self-abusive behaviors, Shimeall said.

To graduate from Phase III of the program, participants spend a minimum of nine months to demonstrate they can provide for themselves, stay away from drugs, follow a responsible medical regimen and maintain financial stability to live independently.

By the time participants reach the fourth and final phase, relapse prevention and transition, they have been under the care of the mental health network for at least two years, Shimeall said. Because the program is only one year old, the mental health court has yet to guide a participant through Phase IV.

To graduate from the program, participants must have six months of sobriety, six months of self-sustained stability with mental health court compliance, successful completion of all court ordered treatment, maintain contact with their sponsor, complete all terms of probation, pay all fines, restitution and treatment fees and have a sold aftercare plan.

“Our goal is to see every person in this program succeed,” Shimeall said.

Felicia is one who sees success with a clear eye. While she has spent much of her adult life in and out of jail, this is the first program to reach out with a sustainable rehabilitation plan, she said. She wants to create a better example for her nieces and nephews and become a reliable resource for her mother.

On moving day, she was most looking forward to cooking her family recipe, home-cooked southern fried chicken and baked macaroni and cheese.

“I appreciate this program giving me an opportunity rather than giving upon me,” she said. “I’ve tried to rehab on my own but it never worked. This time I feel like I can do it. Now I’m like, I made it.”

“Our goal is to see every person in this program succeed.”

Gina Shimeall, 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court Coordinator.


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