Beyond bars

By Claire VanValkenburg, Caysi Simpson, Natalie Yahr

Each year, more than two million people with serious mental illnesses are put in jail, according to NAMI. When people in the United States are released from the prison system, they must reintegrate to the outside world that doesn’t have the strict and organized structure behind bars. They might experience deep distress in the outside world, and this can be even harder with a mental illness.

According to the Urban Institute, the largest prisons or jails in the United States hold more people with a mental illness and co-occurring substance-use disorders than an actual inpatient mental health institute. OARS, otherwise known as Opening Avenues to Reentry Success, provides their program participants, all of whom have previous served, the stability, skills and support necessary to live successfully in the community, according to their website. Inmates are recommended for the program by prison staff, and they have the choice of whether to participate or not. This is a service offered at all 44 counties in Wisconsin.

Sonja Worthy is a social worker with OARS who has an in-depth look into what life is like behind bars for individuals with a mental illness. Sonja has come to see the prison system as a cycle of punishment, with the government and staff focused only on filling their jail cells. However, at all levels of society, we need to start looking at the reasons why people commit crimes in the first place, because it is often due to trauma, mental illness or external factors, according to Sonja.

OARS is a program that helps the formerly incarcerated from being re-arrested in the future. It is a program designed to prevent and not punish, according to Sonja.

For further information on this topic and more, please listen to our podcast above, “Beyond Bars.”


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