‘I made it’: OARS program helps mentally ill convicts stay out of prison
KIMBERLY, Wis. — Lisa Stevenson’s apartment is modest. There’s an air-conditioning unit in the window. She keeps a heavy blanket in between the kitchen and living room so all the cool air stays close to the couch. She has a decent-sized TV and a cat. Most of all, Stevenson has her freedom.
“This is the first place I’ve gotten any support,” Stevenson said.
This month will mark the first time Stevenson has been off paperwork parole for 22 years. Over those decades, she’s been in and out of prison. When she wasn’t behind bars, she was often living on the street. Stevenson had an addiction problem and an abusive relationship, which fueled her cycling in and out of the system. She’s also been diagnosed with schizophrenia and would skip her medication.
“I wouldn’t even consider it a life. I didn’t have one,” Stevenson explained. “I was just consumed with drugs and alcohol.”
Stevenson has been clean now for two years, lives on her own for the first time and holds two part-time jobs. That’s all thanks to the help of the OARS program.
THE IMPACT OF OARS
OARS stands for Opening Avenues to Reentry Success, a collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health Services to make sure the most mentally ill convicts have the help they need when they’re out of jail.
Lars Brown is the reentry disabilities treatment director for the DOC. He says the first two weeks when an inmate returns to the real world can be particularly challenging, especially when there’s access to substances that they used to abuse.
“Ninety-seven percent of our population will at some point return to the community, and we can either provide them therapeutic interventions that will help them to be successful or not. And if we don’t, they’re coming out anyway,” Brown said.
Brown says recidivism rates have dropped for the program’s participants since it started nine years ago. Sometimes, it’s a person’s first exposure to treatment.
“They might have five or six or eight or 10 incarcerations before we get to the point where they find the OARS program, the OARS program has found them,” Brown said, “and the issues have been identified, and we start to work with them, and we’ve seen great success.”
Brown has also noticed a trend in the program’s participants, particularly when it comes to gender. Up to half of those enrolled in OARS are female, even though women make up a much lower percentage of the prison population in Wisconsin.
HELP BEHIND BARS
The high rate of mental illness among female inmates is something the staff at Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI) has been working through for years.
Jennifer Millard-Schmitz is the program supervisor at TCI. According to Millard-Schmitz, at least 80% of female inmates at the state’s only women’s prison require some sort of mental health treatment. She says considering what’s different between helping men and women is an important part of developing their treatments.
“For the ladies, it’s very much so about the relationship. It’s not always what we’re trying to teach, but how we teach it,” Millard-Schmitz said. “It’s about forming a stronger relational dynamic with these ladies. It’s about taking an approach that’s less authoritative and more understanding.”
An entire unit on TCI’s campus is committed to treating the inmates with the most pressing needs and disruptive behaviors. Up to 55 women live on that unit at any given time, allowing them to receive more intensive care.
“The rates of whether it’s confirmed or not confirmed trauma that these ladies have had in their lives is significant, and it plays a significant role on their ability to function, how they parent, how they view the world, how they function independently within relationships,” Millard-Schmitz said. “And I think there’s a misconception that oftentimes, ladies aren’t motivated for treatment because they continue to come back into the community, and they continue to reoffend.”
There are other opportunities for inmates at TCI to work through some of their challenges. Hannah Weisbecker is a full-time recreational therapist. She works mostly out of a room decorated with colorful, inspirational graffiti, painted by one of the inmates. Weisbecker runs creative writing groups, fitness classes and art sessions where women learn how to crochet, knit and bead. She says it’s not about giving the inmates something fun to do, but rather getting to the bottom of some deep-seated issues and encouraging those women to have more self-esteem.
“It’s all about the treatment. It’s all about healing,” Weisbeck said. “And we need to come in here and actually treat them like a human, help them to be listened to, help them to progress, so they can make better decisions when they leave.”
“I MADE IT”
Once they leave TCI, or any other prison in the state, only the most severe cases of mental illness are accepted into OARS. Brown would like to see the services funded statewide, but as of now, it’s available in 51 counties across Wisconsin.
Stevenson is now confident in her support system, including OARS and her friend, Lisa Hanneman. Hanneman is a volunteer with Circles of Support, a group in the Fox Valley area that helps people coming out of prison with that transition.
“That’s what Lisa does, she gets right back up,” Hanneman said.
Hanneman credits OARS and Stevenson’s strong will for keeping her from another sentence.
“Just because they’ve had a record in the past doesn’t mean they’re the same person. People do want to change,” Hanneman said.
As for Stevenson, she looks forward to her shifts at the Legion where she serves fish fry on Fridays. She’s meeting Circles of Support friends at the local rec center, just to hang out. She pays her bills on time. She’s reestablishing relationships with her kids and grandchildren that were torn apart by her addiction. She’s going to the movie theater for the first time in years.
“I made it,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson says she’s committed to working for her freedom and thankful for all the support.
“Just continuing striving, thriving or striving,” Stevenson said. “Don’t give up. No way. I’ve come too far to give up, and I’ll do whatever it takes to not let that happen.”
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