The relationship between substance abuse, mental illness and incarceration is well known to those who work day to day in the criminal justice system.

A new program in Vigo County is aimed at helping those inmates with the dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance use to stay out of jail and move forward into a stable and healthy future.

Established through the work release program at Vigo County Community Corrections, the new therapeutic program accepts qualified participants coming out of the Vigo County Jail.

The participants will receive mental health treatment and appropriate counseling while residing in the work release center. Social workers will help the individuals get enrolled in community treatment agencies such as Hamilton Center and Wabash Valley Health Center, apply for housing, and follow through on court-ordered directions.

“This program is filling the gap between us and our community partners,” said Bill Watson, director of court services for Vigo County. “Often things become overwhelming for these people as they try to do the many things the court wants them to do, such as enroll in counseling and drug treatment and probation. So we have social workers who can help them walk through the process.”

Chief Judge Michael Lewis of Vigo Superior Court 6 said the new program makes sense as part of Indiana’s Criminal Rule 26, which went into effect in 2020 as an evidence-based practice for releasing non-violent offenders from jail to be supervised while awaiting their court dates.

People in jail sometimes have undiagnosed mental illness or, if they are in treatment when arrested, they lose access to their medications by being in jail.

Lewis recalled instances when inmates with mental illness have been sent to a state hospital for treatment to become competent for trial. But soon after returning to the county jail, he said, if they no longer receive their prescribed medications, they can again become incompetent to assist in their own defense.

Several counties already have similar therapeutic programs, Lewis said.

“We’ve been talking about doing it for five to seven years,” Lewis said. “Every day we’re fighting jail overcrowding. We just need to get these people the medicines they need.”

Vigo County Council member Aaron Loudermilk has long supported a therapeutic program. A city police officer, he has served on the local boards of Mental Health America and of Hamilton Center, so he was aware of the challenges for people with mental illness who also picked up criminal charges.

Soon after being elected to the county council, Loudermilk said, discussions with county commissioners looked at the possibility of a diversion center to provide services to qualifying individuals.

“But that never went anywhere,” Loudermilk said of the discussions.

In 2018 during his second year as president of the council, Loudermilk said he tried to reintroduce the diversion center project. After multiple meetings and a visit to a facility near Chicago, still no action was being taken, and by 2019, momentum was lost, he said.

But Watson kept the conversation going by discussing what a therapeutic work release program would look like if housed in the already existing community corrections center.

Watson’s proposal presented to the council had a $500,000 price tag. The council ultimately approved $525,238.

“It’s a big investment,” Loudermilk said, “but I think honestly it’s a great idea and approach to help people in the community.”

Part of the program involves getting people in the jail evaluated in a more streamlined manner so they can be identified for the program and get the medication they need sooner.

The bulk of the funding will go to contractual services. The county will contract psychiatric services and a forensic nurse practitioner to make sure participants get the services they need, such as medication and counseling. A case manager will work with those people in the program. A certified social worker will help participants become established in the community.

“I think this is hopefully a better way to get them the services they need,” Loudermilk said.

The future goal is to have supportive, stable housing in the community with partnership from other agencies.

Watson said the program is still work release, but with increased services for those with dual diagnosis.

The community corrections building, located near the county courthouse, has room to house the participants.

The capacity for residents in the building is 80, Watson said, but as of the first of the year only 40 to 45 were in work release.

In March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everyone in the work release program was placed on home detention with monitoring because the staff did not have the appropriate personal protective equipment or sanitizers for the building.

By August, however, work release was back in action at the community corrections building, which receives funding from the Indiana Department of Correction and cannot be used as an overflow for the county jail during high inmate census.

Watson commends the county council for seeing the value in the new therapeutic treatment program, especially Loudermilk and former council member Mike Morris, who recently transitioned to county commissioner.

“The council made a big commitment to the dual diagnosis population,” Watson said.

Morris said he is excited about the program, as are the county judges.

“It had good support from our council and good support from the state level, and I feel confident in our abilities to implement it,” Watson said.

Reducing the number of people who re-offend and end up back in the jail after release is a good reason the effort, he said.

“We put a quite a bit of money into it,” Morris said of the budget. “Chances for recovering that money from people not being in jail are pretty good, and that’s really our goal, to keep some of these people out of jail.”

Judge Lewis agreed.

The new county jail now under construction will have more capacity than the current cap of 268 inmates, but Lewis said the goal is to keep the inmate population at the same level once the new jail is opened.

The therapeutic work release program will help in doing that.

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Lisa Trigg has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star since 2009. With more than 30 years of newspaper experience, she now covers general news with a focus on crime and courts.