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How Texas Prisons Should Treat Mental Illness to Keep Former Inmates from Coming Back

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In Texas, we already knew there was plenty of work to be done to alleviate the tired and overburdened public mental health care system. In Dallas, we know that we have the same stretched resources that are reported statewide, but in addition we have also not received the majority of recent state funding for public mental health programs.

The suffering state of access to free or cheap mental health care has a huge effect on the criminal justice system. Roughly 40 percent of those incarcerated in 2013 had previously received public mental health services, and many of those were returning to jail for the second, or third or fourth, time.

Which is why, experts are saying, Texas needs to better treat its inmates before they're released.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities recently released a report that outlined the cost effectiveness of targeting mental health problems among those inmates slated for release. Specifically, CPPP is studying how peer support groups -- similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous model -- could benefit inmates. Not only would such efforts be cheaper than public mental health services, it would potentially cut down on recidivism rates.

Katharine Ligon, a mental health expert with CPPP, says that most of those repeat offenders are guilty of nonviolent crimes. "These people are in jail oftentimes because it's related to the their mental illness," she says. "There have been local sheriffs and police departments that have been vocal about the high number of people with mental illnesses rotating in and out of jail. So we thought, how can we help these people with minor crimes?"

CPPP is considering an official legislative agenda for the upcoming session, but the immediate idea behind the initiative makes plenty of sense. The support groups would focus on inmates with a history of mental illness who are one to three months away from release. Ligon says the support groups would not be intended to replace individual counseling, but to complement traditional therapy.

"It can help the inmate to transition to the community. Inmates are often thinking about where they're going to live, if they can get a job, and so the priority of getting to a community mental health center gets further down that list," says Ligon. "But in order to get back into the system, there needs to be a holistic approach."

The key behind plan's success would be in the camaraderie shared between members of the peer support groups. "That shared experience is really vital, and your counselor may or may not have that shared experience," says Ligon. "A peer has the experience of mental illness and that shared experience can help someone in the beginning stages of recovery. They can say, I understand what it's like, I used to have to those voices too, or whatever that may be. They would have someone that can share that experience and guide that person to recovery."

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