WALTER would tell you that trying something different in the field of corrections can work in Oklahoma. He's living proof.
Walter began using heroin as a child. From age 11 to 53, he spent all but 5½ years incarcerated, starting in a boot camp and eventually graduating to boys' homes and then prisons. In his mid-30s he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. During his last prison say, he began taking medications for his mental illness.
As his discharge approached in 2009, Walter was offered the chance to take part in a state program designed to help his re-entry into society. The Oklahoma Collaborative Mental Health Re-Entry Program, in place since 2007, is a partnership between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services.
During the 90 days before their release, participants meet regularly with a re-entry team whose members counsel them and help prepare them for life after prison. Each re-entry team has a “peer recovery support specialist” — someone who has experienced mental illness or substance abuse. Participants also leave prison already eligible for Social Security disability payments and Medicaid, which provide a little income and help cover costs for their meds and counseling.
In Walter's case, he was enrolled in a recovery group that helps those with a serious mental illness develop skills to manage their recovery. At a state mental health services board meeting last year, he told members he was certain he'd be back in prison if not for the program and the work of his re-entry team. “But instead I'm doing better than I've ever done in my life.”
Those sorts of stories hearten Robert Powitzky, who as the DOC's chief mental health officer helped to create the program. A psychologist, Powitzky has spent 40 years working in prison systems, the last 23 of those here in Oklahoma. “I'm just sick about how our jails and prisons have become state mental hospitals,” he said.