When Curt Howard left prison in September 2014, he was doing OK. He moved in with his mother in Lafayette, and he found a job.
Then Howard, a recovering addict, reunited with his former girlfriend, who still was using heroin, he said.
“My boss is telling me, ‘Why you moving out?’ My mom is telling me, ‘Why you moving out?’ Everyone is telling me not to move out — even my friends,” he said.
Nine days after he moved in with his girlfriend, Howard was arrested for possession of narcotics.
It was part of a familiar pattern for Howard, 27, who has been in and out of prison for drug and theft charges most of his adult life.
Howard is not alone. Tippecanoe County Jail is full of men and women who abuse drugs and cycle through the criminal justice system over and over again.
Research indicates that people who return to jail repeatedly make up a large portion of the jail population, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice. In Chicago, for example, the same 21 percent of inmates accounted for half of all admissions to jail.
To stem the cycle of release and reincarceration and prevent people from committing new crimes when they leave jail, Tippecanoe County Jail is expanding mental health services and launching a program designed to help inmates develop healthy support networks in the community.
“The long-term goal is to get advocates or someone out there to actually work with them on the outside to make sure they have their housing, employment, health care — whatever they need,” Sheriff Barry Richard told the Journal & Courier.
“Once the inmate is released back into our community, they know they have a support system that is there for them.”
Many inmates who repeatedly return to jail have mental health or addiction problems. Nationally, 68 percent of people in local jails have a history of abusing drugs, alcohol or both, according to Vera.
Inmates also are significantly likelier to suffer from mental illness than the general population. Nearly 15 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jail suffer from serious mental illnesses, according to Vera. And 60 percent of inmates reported symptoms of mental illness in the past year.
The Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office, which manages the local jail, does not track the addiction or mental health condition rates among inmates. But Richard said he wants the office to move forward with professional assessments to paint an accurate picture of mental health rates in the jail. He believes that, like the national numbers, they are significantly higher than the community at large.
Although jails house many people facing addiction and mental health challenges, resources for handling those issues are limited. Vera reports that nationally only 17 percent of inmates with mental illnesses received care while in jail. Until this spring, the social worker who handles mental health care at Tippecanoe County Jail worked 15 hours per week.
But changes are in the works at the jail, where there’s now a full-time social worker who is helping inmates build relationships with social services agencies, mental health support organizations and churches in the community.
The linchpin of efforts to expand mental health and addiction support for inmates is a new program, Community Navigators, that brings local volunteers into the jail to work with inmates.
The program started about six months ago, when Richard began talking with a few church members, some of whom had led service in the jail, about doing ongoing work with inmates.
Now, there are about 20 navigators. Many are members of local churches, particularly Harvest Chapel, which does regular work with former inmates and people grappling with addiction. Other volunteers include members of the local affiliate of the National Alliance for Mental Illness and a former inmate.
Many of the volunteers who work with inmates are recovering addicts.
“They have been there, they’ve done it, they’ve experienced it,” Richard said. “They’re going to be able to relate to offenders of a young age; they can really talk very straight and realistically about what’s going on.”
The program is in its infancy, and leaders have lots of ideas for its future. NAMI volunteers are building relationships with mental health providers so newly released inmates can receive services without waiting weeks for an appointment, and church leaders are striving to find or create job opportunities for released inmates.
While those plans are taking shape, volunteers from the navigator program are working with inmates in the jail. Each weekday, at least one volunteer hosts a meeting.
On Thursday, a volunteer from NAMI meets individually with inmates to help them with exit planning. On Fridays, a former inmate leads workshops on life skills, such as how to dress for a job interview.
Then there are the Bible studies.
The navigator program is not explicitly religious, but the most visible part of the initiative, which reaches the greatest number of inmates, is weekly addiction meetings led by Christian volunteers. At each meeting, about a half-dozen prisoners gather in a small room in the jail to meet with a community navigator. Richard estimates that 40-50 inmates, out of a population of about 400, participate in the groups.
Many Bible group leaders are recovering addicts, and some spent time in Tippecanoe County Jail and prisons across the state. Their experience gives the program credibility among inmates, leaders say.
On a Thursday in September, five women in neon yellow jumpsuits and orange plastic sandals gathered around a table printed with a chess board. The women are regulars, and one reason they keep coming back is because they feel comfortable with the volunteer who leads the group, they said.
“You can get your feelings out. You don’t feel like you’re being judged,” said one inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You feel like you’re equal.”
It’s easy to see why. Maya Walker is funny and warm. She asks the women in the group about their lives, and she talks openly about her past drug use.
“It’s a daily reminder that those are the consequences of addiction and that lifestyle,” Walker said, “and every day that I’m not using is a testimony.”
At first, the women talk about their cases, friends who have gotten out, and hopes for getting into rehabilitation facilities. Then, they turn to their Bibles, which they share, leaning toward one another to read.
This day they are reading Romans. The words echo off the walls of the room, where there is nothing to absorb sound. Hard plastic stools surround plastic tables. Metal phone boxes line the wall.
What Paul is saying in the verse, Walker said, is that “we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
“And I don’t know about you, but I love myself a lot,” she said, as the group burst into soft laughter.
The Bible studies are focused on helping inmates with drug problems. But Tippecanoe County Jail also is ramping up work with inmates who have mental health conditions.
In June, the prison social worker went from working 15 hours per week to 40 hours as part of a push to increase mental health care at the jail.
Jennifer Uhl, a licensed clinical social worker and addiction counselor, meets with inmates one-on-one to discuss problems, coordinates care to ensure they get whatever medications they need and connects them with service providers in the community, including addiction treatment centers such as Sycamore Springs and Alpine Clinic.
Uhl estimated 95 percent of the inmate population struggles with mental health disorders, a category in which she includes substance use disorders because they require as much treatment as any other mental health disorder, she said. In a typical month, she said she sees about 25 to 35 inmates.
Jail is not an ideal setting for addressing mental health problems, she said.
Unlike prisons, jails are designed for short-term detention — typically while a prisoner awaits trial, sentencing or transfer to another facility. Nonetheless, there are many inmates who spend six months to a year in Tippecanoe County Jail, according to Uhl.
For inmates who are on medication before they are incarcerated, it’s important to keep up that care, Uhl said. At the very least, staff aim to prevent an inmate’s mental health from declining.
There are advantages to working with inmates in the jail. It’s a place where social service providers can connect with people who have slipped through the cracks, despite being in desperate need of help.
“I think a big part of what this initiative is is trying to get them to meet some of the people they can work with face to face ... before they leave the jail,” Uhl said.
In the long-term, Richard and Uhl hope that the community navigators, relationships with social service providers and increased mental health care will all help inmates transition out of incarceration.
Maya Walker’s husband, 33-year-old Jared Walker, was in and out of jail and prison from 16 to 30. When he was released, he would return to a community of drug users — some prescription and some illicit. He would plan to stay sober, but soon return to substance abuse.
“I was trying to obtain joy from the different objects that I was coming out to, like a job or a relationship,” said Walker, “When they failed me, I would turn back to trying to obtain joy from the drugs and alcohol.”
Now addictions ministry leader for Harvest Chapel, Walker has been sober for five years.
One of the most active community navigators, Walker had been in contact with 12 inmates who participated in the jail Bible studies since their release. Some have returned to jail, while others have stopped contacting him. But he’s still in contact with three people who were released, and a man from the program is working with him on a construction job.
It may be steep going, but this is what success looks like for the navigator program — one man getting out of the cycle of drug use and incarceration and helping others follow him.
“There’s guys in the group right now that remember me being locked up with them — that I was using drugs on the street with years ago,” Walker said. “They know how I was, and they know that I’m not the same man that I was then.”