criminal justice

Classmates looking for support without stigma or bias

By: Jomel Silverio, Advocate

In class this past week we spoke about signs and symptoms of mental illness and trauma. This topic reached home for a select few of the class mates in our class, the It’s T.I.M.E. class. The main topic of interest was the difference in acceptance into the Behavioral Health Court and mediation programs for those who committed violent crimes as opposed to non-violent crimes, even though both groups of people share mental illness as a way of life.

One of the classmates, who is now 49 years old, spoke about the harsh reality he faced as a child in foster care, and having to turn to a life of crime, due to the fact that nothing else was readily available as an alternative for a better life. He, like many others in the class we have facilitated, never had a family and supports that would accept him.

The conversation was reciprocal for another student in the class, who is now 45. They spoke about the injustice they face, and that the problem was mostly systemic. The class listened to these two speak about the inequality that plagues inmates who either spend the majority of their lives in jail, or have to return to the same people, places, and things that presented a life of trouble. The conversation flowed without interruption, and I expressed that change comes with numbers, and that no matter how small the change may be, it is still significant to those lives that are given a moment of clarity. As was discussed in the class, not being accepted in the BHC program, can be stressful and discouraging, especially because the acceptance criterion is so specific and exclusive.

The main theme I felt from this class is that far too many people fall through the cracks. There is a need for employment, education, and acceptance for those who have moved beyond the past and are ready to change their lives. There is a need for support without stigma and without bias.

The Stepping Up Initiative Comes to Montgomery County

By: Kathie Mitchell

The Montgomery County Commissioners approved a resolution in May to officially join the national Stepping Up Initiative which focuses on reducing the number of individuals with mental illnesses in county jails across the country.

By its proclamation, Montgomery County joins more than 350 other counties representing 35% of the United States’ population, to commit actions toward reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in their local jails.

In May 2015, The Stepping Up Initiative was launched. It is a partnership between the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG), the National Association of Counties, and The American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

In January 2015, the Montgomery County Forensic Mental Health Coalition was formed in response to concerns from local advocates, families, mental health providers, corrections and community corrections about the need to tackle the issue which has been labeled “the criminalization of the mentally ill.”

The county’s Forensic MH Coalition has adopted four goals:

  • Reduce the number of people with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) who are booked into jail;
  • Reduce the length of time people with SMI stay in jail;
  • Increase the number of people with SMI getting connected to community-based services and supports, and
  • Reduce the number of people with SMI returning to jail.

The Coalition has a Steering Committee which meets monthly. There are three working committees – Data, Diversion and Reentry -that also meet on a regular basis.

By joining the national initiative, the county becomes the 14th county in the state to join the initiative. The county will have access to technical assistance that is offered through webinars and the partnerships’ resources.

In addition, Pennsylvania launched a statewide Stepping Up Initiative on April 4, making it just the third state in the country to take on the issue, following Ohio and California, the CSG Justice Center reported.

At the county and state level in PA, local leaders and community stakeholders will follow a roadmap that addresses six key questions that the community must answer in order to develop a comprehensive strategy to impact the problem. The roadmap addresses key elements of a successful plan, including the need for screening and assessments for mental illness upon admission to jail; establishing a baseline for data for counties to follow; tracking progress on key outcomes, such as recidivism rates, and ensuring connections to treatment, according to the CSG Justice Center.

 

A “new self” emerging

At: MCCF

To: Dear Staff and Peers

I want to first state I have learned a great deal about myself in these 8 weeks I have been attending the It’s T.I.M.E. class.  I have been inspired from this program and the breathing exercise really helps me a lot, especially during times of frustration. When I am upset about something or angry at something, I use what I have learned in the It’s T.I.M.E. to cope with my feelings, such as the breathing and counting exercise that I have to continue to practice though out my life.  The stress that I was having has lessened by the day, and I am more relaxed as the days of practice and just doing the exercise integrate into a part of my everyday routine.

Understanding the criminal systems and the different Courts of the Common Pleas, such as Drug Court, Treatment Court, and the Criminal Court, has helped me out a lot. I have learned to be patient with receiving the help of getting my medication. It was a process and I am receiving the proper medication finally. I have been able to identify the warning signs, triggers, and the behaviors of my old self when it comes to the ADDICTION side of life.

I must stay focused and committed to staying clean and sober and to never fall back into the same old patterns that took me down the past, coming back to prison is a fear that I have gotten since I have been incarcerated this time around, and it’s very sad for me to be here at this stage of my life. Giving up my freedom, family and real friends, has been a playing a part in my thinking. I not only hurt myself but I hurt those that care for me and love me the most.

I have learned a lot about others, and tools that I have already put into place with practice. I would like to thank Kathie, Jomel, and Jeff for everything that you have given me. Thanks for the hope and shining light that has been tuned back on that dulled by the life that I was living, and I want to say thank you all for bringing me out of the state of mind that I was in for some time now, and now I am the light in the darkest situation….. May God Continue to bless you all and continue to help people save themselves from confused lifestyles.

It helps to stay connected

Ron participated in every class in session 18 of the It’s T.I.M.E. class we, the Community Advocates, teach at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The purpose of the class is to help men think about the reasons they came to jail, identify possible solutions, make changes and to start a new life.
.
Ron was always composed and participated by reading and sharing his thoughts on issues that he could relate to. Ron had begun to participate in our current session, (session 19), of the It’s T.I.M.E. class, and one class we expected to see Ron, but didn’t see him and wondered why he hadn’t showed up.
.
Turns out that Ron had a court appearance the previous day and was discharged into the community, and then, just last week, we had a surprise visit…Ron dropped by the HopeWorx office to get some resources squared away.
.
It was such an awesome feeling, seeing one of our students make it out of Montgomery County Correctional Facility, and making their first stop in the community at the HopeWorx office after getting released.
.
Part of our goal is to stay connected with individuals once they leave jail to give support and see if their plans are working out. If they need treatment and need to be connected to a particular resource, we are there to help. And that is exactly how the advocates helped and will continue to help.

It’s T.I.M.E. students demonstrate learning at graduation

By: Kathie Mitchell, Director

On April 13, at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, nine men participated in their final assignment before earning a graduation certificate. Each student gave an example in six words of what they learned during the 14-week recovery and reentry class. Here are some examples:

 

“How to deal with my anger.”

“Identifying my triggers is a must.”

“How to be a better person.”

“Fail to plan, plan to fail.”

“Anger turned inward, distorts reality always.”

“Changes we make, change our lives.”

 

As a supervisor and observer of this project for past seven years, I’ve been privileged to watch the growth of our students and the class facilitators as we shared information, introduced new concepts and provided a pathway for changes. The newest concept “Telling your story in six words” is an exercise brought to us earlier this year by Cabrini University Professor Catherine Beckowski. By looking at the examples above, you can see it works. Each of the statements relate to a topic we cover in the session and express a feeling or self-reflection.

 

“Thoughtful. Concise. Poignant. Insightful. Inspiring. Humbling.” These are the six words that came to me as I heard the examples on graduation day. The men take this activity seriously and demonstrated what we at Community Advocates knew: The men who participate in the class are trying hard to learn how to change their actions and/or thoughts, educate themselves about resources and return to the community with a plan to succeed.

 

“I tried too hard to help,” said one man. “That’s what got me in here.”

 

This man’s story, like many of our students, is a complicated one. A member of his community’s Lion’s Club, he had recently reconnected with his biological brother. He had a good job and owns a home. But somewhere along the way, his life as he knew it, fell apart.

 

According to his Community Advocates Reentry Plan, he has a home plan and a few options to try to obtain financial support in the community. He is considering college or trade school and named a few places where he might volunteer. He knows that it’s important to have people he can count on and says in his plan that he will connect with these resources. He also has a plan for idle time and a self-care plan for living in the community.

 

But his case has not been settled yet. He has applied to be accepted into one of the specialty courts but the process can take a few months and rejection is possible if he doesn’t meet the criteria.

 

Meanwhile, this man along with his classmates and many others before him, are connecting with peers who facilitate the class. They receive individual help when needed and some are learning about themselves and how to advocate for themselves, for the first time.

 

Trust is a big issue. And finding the resources in the community that will help each person make the changes they desire, isn’t always easy. Going back to the same life and same place where the trouble started is unfortunately, sometimes the only option.

 

But something that won’t change is the new knowledge the students have acquired. They have resources to seek out. And peers to support them.

 

“Being in class, there’s other people like me,” said one young man who also found a spiritual connection along the way. “Loving myself has increased my faith. It allows me to have patience for myself and others.”

 

His six words: “Faith, trust, understanding, strength and love.”

 

These graduates showed us they were thinking, identifying areas in their lives that need work, and are ready to make changes to enter a new life.

 

 

 

Scent of a boxwood puts politics at bay

By: Kathie Mitchell

As I jogged around my neighborhood this morning, a subtle but familiar scent floated by. It was the scent of boxwood, a fragrant evergreen shrub that triggers pleasant memories from my childhood every time I happen to smell it.

 

Ironically, I had recently been trying to remember the name of this bush as I described it to our justice and recovery class at the county jail as a trigger of a positive memory. Until I passed by the yard this morning, I had not recalled the name. Suddenly as I inhaled deeply, “boxwood” promptly appeared in my mind.  The recall shows just how powerful a “person, place or thing” can be. The taste of a certain food, a smell of a flower, the words of a song – they can all invoke powerful feelings and memories. What we do with those feelings is important. During the class, we talk about identifying triggers that can cause thoughts or behaviors that may get us into trouble. Sometimes, however, a trigger can result in a positive experience.

 

As I continued my jog listening to the early morning tweets from numerous birds and looking up at the clouds and blue sky, I made a mental note to tell the students at class tomorrow that my trigger was boxwoods. I wanted to tell them how it changed my state of my mind for much of the day.  For at that instant when my olfactory senses made the connection, my mind was running through the day – what happened earlier in the morning, what will happen later, what I have to do that night. At this particular moment, I was mentally reviewing some other morning tweets about the Republicans’ proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the effect on Medicaid…some rather troubling thoughts.

 

As quickly as the fragrance hit me, it was gone. But so were the negative ruminations! I became intensely aware of everything around me. The cool spring-like air was invigorating.  A gentle breeze swayed the bare branches of large trees as I gazed upward at the blue sky, puffs of clouds meandering through and above the waving limbs. The color of scarlet became cardinals; black and white bobbing specks on a bird feeder transformed into finches. I became aware of the absence of car noise and other sounds of human awakenings.

 

I became mindful. I slowed to a walk. I wanted to be totally in the present, purposefully inhaling and exhaling slowly and taking an inventory of my blessings in the moment. The practice of mindfulness is another approach we have introduced to our class that helps promote calmness and an ability to focus in our students.  I thought about the boxwood bushes that used to grace the front lawn of my late grandmother’s home. I remembered her smiling face and the happiness she exuded every time I visited. She was a shining light in my life and a beacon of hope, safety and love.

 

Thanks to the scent of a boxwood, hours after my running shoes were put away, that light in my life is still shining.

 

 

Six words can tell a story

By: Kathie Mitchell, Director

 “Chose to live and not die.”

 At the recent graduation of the 17th session of “It’s T.I.M.E.”, each student read six words they had worked on during the past week that described a goal or a statement about themselves.

 It was a moving and enlightening experience and I was left again in awe and feeling inspired by the courage and thoughtfulness that was demonstrated in that room.

 James (not his real name) had written the above words and during the week had gone to the jail library to have it typed. Here’s what he said:

 “These are the six words that motivate me to go strong and stay strong in my recovery process. Drugs kept leading me into jail. I say this because if I don’t use drugs and stay on my medication I never come back to these places and give up my freedom. I say this because I have stayed clean for 10 years. And within those 10 years I have accomplished a lot. A lovely wife, place of business, good credit, and most of all my family. These were the best 10 years of my life. I learned how to be a husband, father, brother, uncle, nephew and most of all, a real friend. Being in this class has taught me how to live again, and take responsibilities for my actions. I learned that staying clean and taking my medication must come first. My ways and distorted thinking has kept me in the grips of a continued and progressive illness. I have learned that I don’t have to be the director of every situation. I can be a productive member of society and abide by the rules of society. I was in the fight of my life. I lost my mother in 2009 and tried to commit suicide and couldn’t even do that right. God has truly been good to me. I had a lot of guilt and remorse toward my family. All along I was really upset with myself. I just wanted to put these six words into my life, to let it be known that drugs don’t rule my life anymore and yes, I have the power to choose or let someone else dictate my life…I thank you all for giving me the tools to live again…life has been so much better.”

 I love your story, James, and how you summed it up.

 Six words…“Life has been so much better.”

 

 

 

 

 

Celebration of Life

JB – Friend, colleague, mentor, family

By: Kathie Mitchell, Director of Community Advocates

 

It’s hard for me to believe he’s gone. Each morning for the past two weeks, I expect to see a text message or email from him on my phone. JB was an early riser, and he liked getting to the office early in the morning before anyone else got there and it was still quiet. At the office, he had a presence. I still look up from my desk and expect to see him standing quietly and patiently in the doorway, waiting to update me on the outcome of a class, the result of some research he did, an injustice that needed to be addressed.

 

JB was passionate about the work he did at the county correctional facility. He told a colleague recently that this was the work he was meant to do. He loved teaching the re-entry class but always humbly reminded everyone that the class was about the students, not him. I attended the most recent graduation on May 12th where 13 men received their Certificates for completing the class. It was the 16th time we held the 14-week class which ran consecutively for the last 5 ½ years. JB was always proud of the students and took the time to know each and every one. In this last class we had introduced “Storytelling” where individuals learned a simple technique to help them focus on telling a concise, strengths-based story about themselves (or elevator speech as it’s sometimes called) to prepare for a court hearing, to talk with a probation officer, or interview for a job. At graduation, each of the men were given a few minutes to tell their story. You could feel the emotion in the room as each man bared a little of his soul, a past discretion and then a hope and sometimes a prayer, that they were going to start a new life in the community.  One gentleman in particular, pointed to JB and said, “I know that if you can do it, I can, too.” Leading by example, JB shared his story over the course of the class and truly made the connections and gained the trust of so many who felt hopeless, had made mistakes, followed the wrong path, had no one to give them a hand up, or who had forgotten how to trust.

 

JB knew we appreciated him because we told him often since he was prone to blaming himself or being his own worst critic. He was always polite, dignified, interested, hardworking and caring. Above all, he had a great respect for people and in turn, was greatly respected by those who knew him. I am so happy that he received an award for his work from NAMI Montgomery County just a week before he died. It was an honor to be there with him and to see him recognized for the work he achieved. He was really at the top of his game.

 

The next day on my desk, he left me a beautiful card with a painting of an Oak Tree by Jerry Garcia on the cover. It was filled with gratitude about the support he received at Hopeworx and as he put it “allowing me to be me.” Being him was what made the job so successful. In the card, his sentiments were also filled with hope, ironically, for the future. At the end of the card he thanked me for being “such an integral part of my journey to reaching just the beginning of bigger and better things to come from the advocacy team that I’ve come to love so dearly.”

 

He was part of our family at Hopeworx and I sent him a thank you text that read, “It’s been a privilege working with you and the rest of the team. We are a family! With much gratitude, Namaste.”

 

 

John “JB” Brooks Obituary

John Carl Brooks, “JB” of East Norriton, PA, born September 28, 1962, died in May 2016 while vacationing in St. John, the American Virgin Islands. He was raised in Glenside, PA, graduating from Cheltenham High School. He attended college at Bryant University in Rhode Island and Boston University. He was predeceased by his parents, Carl Brooks and Dorothy Brooks, and his sister Barbara Brooks. He is survived by his sister Janet Brooks and her husband, Alan Siniscalchi, of Middletown, CT, his nieces, Hilary Siniscalchi Brooks of Middletown, CT and Elana Siniscalchi Brooks, of Marion, Maine, his first cousins Pat Santini and her husband Sam Santini, of Pittsburgh, PA and Pat’s children, Dawn McCallister, Greg Metcalfe and Robbie Metcalfe, his first cousin Anthony Figliola of Bensalem, PA and his first cousin Dewey Figliola of Philadelphia, PA.

 

JB was born into a family business, Brooks Paint Stores, founded by his parents, with retail paint stores in Philadelphia and the greater-Philadelphia area. That meant every family member grew up working in and learning an aspect of the business. Under his father’s tutelage, JB became a salesman extraordinaire and worked in the business until its sale in January 1994 upon the death of his mother.

 

As a young child JB learned how society treated his beloved sister Barbara, who had developmental disabilities, as “other,” when he knew she was the same as you and me. JB became passionate about helping individuals with disabilities and later, through his own recovery journey, began a successful career as a forensic peer advocate.

 

JB worked tirelessly for the past 5 ½ years as a valued member of the HopeWork, Inc. community. He facilitated the peer-to-peer class, “It’s T.I.M.E.”, for men with mental health and substance use issues at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.  JB was highly regarded by the participants who graduated from his class and was valued by colleagues for his hard work and collaboration. He also provided a connection between the men in the class and their families, attorneys and treatment providers. JB worked closely with the Public Defender’s Office, Adult Probation and Parole, Corrections Staff and the county’s Justice Related Services.

 

In May 2016 he was awarded the Glenn Koons Recovery Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Montgomery County (PA).

 

In recent years, JB became closer with his sisters and visited his sister Barbara, a treasured moment in Barbara’s life which ended a few months later. His nieces, Hilary and Elana, met him for the first time as young adults. John was the guest of honor at his sister Janet’s home for Thanksgiving in 2014 and 2015. It is through John’s recovery that his nieces, Hilary and Elana, learned the meaning of resilience of the human spirit and body.

 

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, June 9 at the Fairview Village Church, 3044 West Germantown Pike, Eagleville, PA 19403. Friends may call from 6 to 7 p.m. The Memorial Service will begin at 7 p.m. Light refreshments will follow the service. Donations may be made to HopeWorx Inc., 1210 Stanbridge St., Suite 600, Norristown, PA  19401.

 

 

 

Storytelling continued through It’s T.I.M.E. class participant

Graduation Day May 12, 2016

I lost sight of who I should have been. The number one person in my life for me is our Lord. I was so stuck in my own world that I wanted things my way without any consequences. I would steal, lie, minimize, cheat, make excuses and blame whoever I was able to other than myself! So being here and allowing the Lord to work in me as well as taking this class, as well as others, has allowed me to open my eyes to realize the reality of things.

Now I’m able to live by the beliefs of: if I can become an improved individual in jail with limited resources, then I can most definitely do it with unlimited resources outside of jail!

I’m also more determined to be a father to my daughter and to repair the relationships that I’ve ruined. To do that I need to forgive them for whatever they did to me but to forgive myself for everything I have done. I plan on getting help with my cutting addiction as well as my mental disabilities.

I want to get a job upon getting an apartment or a living arrangement. I will start first with getting any job and then upgrading to a career. I want to stop taking all the great things that the Lord has given me in my life for granted. Overall, I’m going to become an even more God fearing, well improved individual that is a success at life and not a disappointment and failure that I’ve been for the last 23 years. There is no better time for a fresh start than right now.