Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Job: Dual Diagnosis Counselor at a Womens' Prison

Today's post is a little off topic, but today was the inmates graduation and being the emcee I posted about my nerves on Facebook and told my friends with an interesting response.  I have been working there for 8 months and it always seems to be an interesting topic to talk about with friends, family even strangers.  The reactions are mixed, but people have the same few questions so here goes.  If I seem vague it's because well it's a prison and although some information is open, certain some things are not.

  • My job is Dual Diagnosis therapist, although not all my clients are what the program considers DD.  To them DD is MH medication+therapist+diagnosis of MH & Addiction.  The medication they can receive is not the same medication they often have Rx with their regular MH doctor.
  • The programs main focus is substance abuse and they attend 16+ hours of group a week including cognitive skills, seeking safety, and process.  They learn a lot of skills for their recovery and must attend 2-12 step meetings a week.  
  • We have a wait list of over one year most times, some of them are parole-board recommended- which translates that they need to complete the program.  
  • The program is 6 months long.  There are reviews of their progress every 30 days- it's very time consuming.
  • My caseload is about 20 people, although not all people graduate due to various reasons most are due to lying, manipulating and confidentiality.
  • The "program" is all housed together- the rooms hold from 2-6 people, most are "2-man cells."
  • We utilize a peer-support program which includes 10 "lifers," all which are murderers some of which have been incarcerated for 25 years.
  • We are contracted by the state.
  • A vast majority of these women have been the victim of horrific abuse as a child (often sexual,) abusive relationships, raped, started using substances around age 13 and have or in the process of losing their kids permanently.  Most would meet the criteria for PTSD.
Now to the questions people have most often:
  • I always feel safe- the rare time I don't is when I am with general population and someone s cursing or yelling at someone else.  There are physical fights- but rarely .  There has been 1 in the 8 months I have been there, and I don't think there was more than one prior.
  • The "lifers" and inmates in general are not scary or mean.  Part of it is because they in some way need the program to parole or stay out of another more-strict.more dangerous unit (or they have an extra 2 years+ typically.)
  • Some do recovery- this is probably the #1 question.  Some come back.  We don't know statistics on how many, but I would assume half of them relapse on substances with in first 2-3 years.  If they relapse they often go to a different program, rather than repeating this one although we have had a few come back 5 years later.
  • Half of my co-workers are in recovery, my boss has 33 years and my co-worker has 13 years clean! We had a counselor pass this year and she has 13 as well, she died due to complications from her Hep C she contracted at age 17 using heroin.
  • It's very, very stressful- these women have been through so much and get "caught up" in what we call "prison bullshit," relationships, manipulation and lying to staff.  A lot of my time is spend in crisis mode, especially in the beginning of the 6 months.  
  • I cry, I try not to and most of the time I am fine.  They write an autobiography about halfway through and share it with the group- it's all triggering.  Some stories don't affect me so much and then there are a few that keep me up at night, make me cry or change the way I look at the inmate.  These women have such strength and perseverance and their stories are so tragic.  
  • We can't hug!  Nope, no touching on shoulder, no embracing at all.  This is a strict rule and could lead to termination.  It is difficult and un-natural at times, especially when someone comes to be on-on-one and tells me their child died in the streets selling dope or there mom has terminal cancer.  Life goes on while they are in jail and they often feel and are powerless.I am called by my last name only
  • Yes, they eat crap.  Carb and calorie heavy food is the norm around here. They are allowed to work out at times and watch videos during the day.  There really isn't healthy options and most gain weight while incarcerated. Food is a commodity and is traded like cash.
  • There are drugs in the prison.  Seems strange, but like all institutions there are drugs.  Most often it's Rx drugs that another inmate "cheeks" and sells, but there is also narcotics.
  • 3" toothbrushes, and other strange things (to me) are used as if it's normal.  They are allowed to purchase (or someone purchases it for them) certain products these mostly include non-name brand lotions and such.  They are not allowed make-up (they use paint,) nail polish, headbands, etc.  Many still have them though.  A "full size" toothbrush that is easily 15 years old can go for $25.
That's all I can think of off-hand, I am open to answering any questions as I often think people think I work in one of those "reality" TV shows that fill prime-time TV now.  Here's a secret- the inmates in one of those shows is told to yell obscenities and appear aggressive for the cameras...I know I have 3 people in my group that were on it!

**Trigger Warning: There is a movie Sin By Silence (trailer here) which is a documentary about abused women who kill their husbands.  It's very sad, and triggering but very empowering as they work to change California laws and get out**