Missouri program finds treatment success with mentally ill offenders

Missouri program finds treatment success with mentally ill offenders

(L-R) Case Manager Marty McWilliams, Activity Therapist Howard Fletcher, SSRU Coordinator Amanda McCarron, Activity Therapist Erica Steinbeck and LPN Brandy Green

Stepping into a maximum security prison can be daunting. Nonetheless, staff members enter Jefferson City Correctional Center (JCCC) in Missouri every day, despite challenging circumstances. The expectations for maintaining safety and security, as well as providing for the various needs of the offenders in their custody, are high. For correctional officers and mental health staff working in the Secure Social Rehabilitation Unit (SSRU), the expectations are even higher.

The SSRU is a program designed for offenders who are not able to function appropriately in general population settings due to mental illness and who require higher security. Offenders in this program are often victims of severe assaults or have attempted suicide multiple times. Walking into the SSRU on this particular day, one may be surprised to learn that it is what it is–a segregation unit in a maximum security prison. Decorations are hung around the wing include red, white and blue streamers made out of construction paper, in honor of the upcoming Independence Day holiday. Chairs have been arranged in order for maximum staff attendance. Often though, it is standing room only. Offenders exit their cells and prepare for a ceremony to honor the release of a member from the program, as well as to celebrate the holiday and show off some talents.

The activity therapists, Howard Fletcher and Erica Steinbeck, have spent the last several weeks preparing for this event. Staff members are encouraged to sing along during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and cheers can be heard when an offender sings an original song, in spite of his long struggle with schizophrenia and paranoia about what others think of him. Another offender, known for his dancing skills, jazzes things up with an enthusiastic performance to “Uptown Funk,” gaining loud applause from the audience. Finally, the offender emcee of the program, wraps things up by surprising several staff members with certificates for recognitions such as, “Great Therapist of the SSRU” or “Outstanding Nurse.”

At the program’s conclusion, the offenders are able to talk briefly with some of the staff, who are always appreciative of another well done celebration. Once the staff leaves, the offenders are given a rare treat–cake and ice cream, with punch. Even those offenders who rarely speak to staff or leave their cell participate in this part of the day. The gratefulness in their eyes is proof that programs such as this truly do make a difference. Without the continued dedication from JCCC staff, both custody and mental health alike, a program such as this would not thrive as it does here. Differences in the offenders are evident, and this is what drives the staff to press on. This is why those who work at the SSRU see this as more than just a job–but an opportunity to change the lives of those who are cast off from society.