Last Resort: Alternatives to Incarceration | KUER 90.1

Last Resort: Alternatives to Incarceration

Oct 7, 2014

Most people who end up in Salt Lake County jail go in with some kind of mental illness or addiction to drugs. While there, they have access to mental health treatment. They usually leave sober, but support services outside of jail are difficult to find. In the final part of our series Last Resort, KUER follows some former inmates to see what happens to them after their release.

Joel Hunt is a physician assistant. But forget the image of a white coat or a sterile exam room. In a plaid shirt and jeans, Hunt gathers his medical supplies from a van, then knocks on the door of a rundown motel room.

Inside the stuffy room, a radio plays while smoke drifts up from a cigarette in the ashtray. On the bed is a woman with her pants off, a large abscess on the back of her upper thigh. Hunt and another healthcare worker are checking up on a device they implanted to drain the pus from the infected area.

She calls herself Alex, though she says that’s not her real name. She says she got the abscess from shooting heroin, what she calls dirty dope. 

“I never was in trouble until I was 37,” Alex says. “That’s when I took my first hit of crack-cocaine.”  Alex wears thick eyeliner and avoids eye contact. She says she had been on the run from a drug charge, but when she was caught, she was sentenced to a year in jail. “When I got out, I got out with not even a bus token, I had two cents to my name,” she says. “I was in boxers and a wife-beater, and it was February.”

Alex says she quickly returned to what she called illegal activities. She says she did what she had to do to get money, but she believes things could have gone differently for her. “A little bit of help besides two cents in my pocket would have been real helpful,” she says.

"A little bit of help besides two cents in my pocket would have been real helpful."

Hunt works for the 4th Street Clinic which gives charity care to the poor and homeless. He treats those who wouldn’t get care otherwise, and many of them have had run-ins with the law. Hunt says he’s watched many patients fall right back into trouble when they’re released from jail.

“I’ve heard plenty of stories of people getting in rides from jail, and that’s when people have been brutally raped, beaten, that’s where they’ve relapsed, a lot of bad things,” Hunt says.  “I don’t know if you’ve been to Salt Lake County jail, but there is literally a ramp that they walk down, and that’s where it all often goes awry.”  Hunt says the jail offers medical treatment and recovery services, but he says it doesn’t help in the long term if people have no support when they’re released.  “So my dream scenario would be having a jail ramp that spits people out into a sea of assistance rather than a barren desert of hopelessness.”

Across town in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City, people who suffer from mental illness are gathering for a group support session. Here, is what you might describe as that “sea of assistance” that Hunt was speaking  of.

In the group is a man who has been to jail three times, but by all accounts has turned his life around. Dusan Petrovsky is an unlikely success story. He became homeless when he lost his job more than 5 years ago, he suffers from schizophrenia, alcohol addiction and has abused other drugs including cocaine. He has very little support from family or friends. Without any intervention, Petrovsky says he would have ended up back in the same place when they released him from jail.

“Most likely I would have ended up going back to my old ways of using drugs and drinking,” Petrovsky says.  

Petrovksky’s situation is unusual. Normally a single, childless man like him would not qualify for Medicaid in Utah. But because of his schizophrenia, the federal government could classify him as severely and persistently mentally ill. Mental health counselor Tammy Steans says the Legal Defenders Association contacted her office while Petrovksy was in jail to let her know that he might qualify. They helped him fill out all the required paperwork.

“So upon his release, we were able to get him in with a doctor, get the medications that he needed, and then get him into treatment, and by getting him connected immediately, he didn’t get lost,” Steans says. “You know, he wasn’t out on the streets.”

This cooperation between the Legal Defenders Association and mental health providers is the result of a program called Alternatives to Incarceration. It’s a program designed to help seriously mentally ill people avoid the criminal justice system and get mental health treatment. By complying with treatment, Petrovksy got eight outstanding criminal charges dismissed.  He started getting a social security check. And the Road Home, a non-profit organization was able to provide him with housing. For Petrovsky, this was a turning point.

“Having the housing is kind of having hope to moving on from my past endeavors, I guess,” Petrovsky says. “I would say one of the biggest things is actually having hope.”

"I would say one of the biggest things is actually having hope."

Now Petrovksy is talking about trying to find a job, and if he can get the money, he wants to buy a truck. Tammy Steans says he’s is one of the lucky ones because he was able to qualify for Medicaid and receive Social Security. She says Petrovsky’s case is living proof that providing this kind of comprehensive support can change somebody’s life.

“For him, it’s a success and for all of us because he hasn’t been a repeat offender and he’s not sitting in jail with a mental health condition,” Steans says.  

Petrovksy is one of over 400 people who have been involved in Alternatives to Incarceration since the program started about two years ago. Now organizations like the 4th Street Clinic are starting similar programs. But Joel Hunt and others say these efforts are limited to the resources available. Many of his clients, like Alex, are not likely to qualify for Medicaid. If former inmates can’t get a safe ride from jail to a mental health provider, if they can’t get health insurance, if they can’t wait until a county-funded bed at a recovery center opens up, it’s still easier to score drugs than to get help.