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Therapists try to keep inmates out of jail

Nicole Formosa
Vail, CO Colorado
Mark Fox/Summit DailyTherapists Storm Rogers Johnson, left, and Susan Toys talk with inmates at the Summit County Jail during a therapy session last week.
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SUMMIT COUNTY ” Every other Wednesday afternoon, Storm Johnson and Susan Toys set up a circle of plastic chairs in the Summit County Jail’s indoor recreation room amid the ping-pong table, television and bookshelves.

Male inmates, typically anywhere from 18 to 33 years old, fill the chairs for the first hour ” about eight show up ” followed by one or two female inmates for the second hour.

“Some of them come because they really have some interest, and some come because it’s a time-filler,” Johnson said.



Regardless of inmates’ reasons for attending, Johnson and Toys take advantage of the time to lead an open discussion focused anger management, coping skills and other issues.

On Fridays, the women return to the jail to meet one-on-one with inmates who request a more personalized therapy session, and whose requests are approved by the jail captain.

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The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.



The two licensed mental health professionals donate their time and expertise each month in an effort to break a cycle at the jail that’s reflective of a much larger nationwide trend: Jails and prisons are filling up with inmates suffering from untreated or undiagnosed mental health illnesses.

In 2005, more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, according to a Bureau of Justice report.

From what Johnson’s seen, most often, people living with diseases like depression, bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress syndrome self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, then wind up behind bars because of drunk driving, drug possession charges or violence-related crimes.



“There isn’t anybody in our group who has not admitted to substance abuse ” period,” she said.

The inmates sober up while serving time, but fall back into the same habits upon release and usually end up with a new jail sentence, she said.

“They go from 90 days to 180 days to 240 days,” Johnson said. “They never seem to get out of the system once they’re in it.”

“It’s a serious problem, and it’s a serious problem everywhere because there aren’t enough mental health resources,” said Summit County Jail Capt. Dave Suter.

Without funding available, volunteer work is pretty much the only option to address the issue.

Johnson, who has 25 years experience in the therapy field and runs a private practice locally, started the pro bono mental health therapy support group in January with hopes to steer inmates toward a better track in life.

Toys, a therapist who relocated to the county from Louisiana about 18 months ago, signed on in February.

The idea stemmed from Johnson’s experience working with police on a similar program when she was living in Chicago. Summit County Sheriff John Minor and Suter said they hope the therapy program will reduce recidivism at the jail.

“It’s pretty exciting for us to see this happen,” Minor said.

If Johnson or Toys thinks an inmate can benefit from medication, they can ask Suter to make an appointment with the jail doctor, who determines whether to write the prescription.

The county covers the cost of medications inmates need while incarcerated, and last year spent about $27,000 on prescriptions for inmates, Suter said.

Although their program is still relatively new, Johnson and Toys said they’ll seek qualify grants and other funding to keep it going into the future.

Three months into the experiment, progress with the inmates is admittedly slow, but it’s happening, Suter said.

Toys talk about one severe substance abuser who is suffering from a mental health problem and with whom she’s met four times.

She’s seen a definite change in his demeanor, she said.

“This guy was scary to me at first and you can just see a calmness (now),” Toys said.

The therapists’ presence can also make life inside the jail less tense.

“From my point of view of being responsible for a jail, if the inmates have programs ” if these people can come in and help these people figure out what they’re doing wrong ” it lowers their stress level and it makes life better for my staff because they’re dealing with less people that are angry,” Suter said.

“The inmates ” they’re calmer, they’re more rational, they’re more likely to comply.”


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