April 2, 2018 was my first day working in a jail. I walked up and down the long walkways thinking to myself, how did I end up here? I followed the detention officer down the catwalk with my head down, intentionally distracted with a custody report on my clipboard. A large skeleton key jangled on the officer’s belt. Taking deep breaths, I walked to the first cell and stood there.

“Are you Jane*?” the officer asked.

“Yeah,” answered the inmate.

“Someone is here to see you,” the officer replied. He looked at me with the cue to go ahead. I felt he was observing my approach as if I were on stage, ready for my solo act. In my mind, I kept thinking I might stumble over my words or that I’d be dismissed – the window of opportunity open and shut as quickly as her eyelids from interrupted sleep.

I took a deep breath and looked at the officer. I knew this was a first for me and the jail. I knew my approach had never been done here before so I couldn’t refresh my memory of how it was done in the past. I knelt down slightly and looked into the woman’s eyes. I smiled at her, and began to speak. “It is nice to meet you. I am a clinical therapist and would like to speak with you. Are you okay with moving to a different cell so we can have some privacy to talk?”

As soon as I introduced myself, I felt the nervous jitters dissipate through the bottom of my feet. Now I felt more grounded in my stance, more aware of my intent and confidence in my therapist role. I became aware that it wasn’t my job that was new. It was the environment.

My first day as a public safety clinician was also my first day in a jail. I was expected to jump right in and begin assessments, referrals and emotional support to individuals in custody and their families. As overwhelming as the job description entailed, I fully committed and did just that- I jumped right in with 100% commitment.

About Me

I have been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist since 2016. I have experience working with children, teens, and adults since 2011. Several evidence based practices (EBP’s), I have received training in include Multi-Axial Assessment team (MAT), Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), and Alternatives for Families, A Cognitive Behavioral Approach (AF-CBT). Other areas of interest involving my work include trauma and yoga integration and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

Fast Forward to 2018

When I applied at The Guidance Center, I was approached with the job opportunity of Public Safety Clinician. I was provided a very brief description of the role prior to my interview regarding the pilot program, however it peaked my interest since it described an innovative approach towards helping a specific population. The proceeding interview took place at the Long Beach City Jail and included a brief tour by a Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) supervisor. Within the following week or so, I was getting ready for my first day on the job: in the city jail.

What Does a Public Safety Clinician Do?

As the public safety clinician, I am a part of a first-of-its-kind program called the Justice Lab, launched by the City of Long Beach’s Innovation Team in collaboration with city, county and community-based providers. The program aims to help break the cycle of incarceration by providing tools to first responders to divert individuals to resources and services. The Clinician in Jail Pilot is one of the initiatives of the Justice Lab.

The City’s Innovation Team analyzed over 100,000 offenses during a five-year period and found that the highest utilizers of the jail were often people experiencing persistent challenges, such as mental illness, substance use, and/or homelessness, and committing low-level, non-violent offenses. Without connection to services and resources to address challenges, individuals continuously cycle their way through the local jail.

To address this need, I provide therapeutic services within the jail that assess, connect and divert individuals to care. In the first step of the intervention, I assess their individual mental health needs by having a conversation with them. Some people are in immediate crisis and will need to be hospitalized. Others may benefit from an outpatient approach upon release. Then, I work with our collaborators to develop a post-release plan that involves linking that individual to the appropriate supportive service, whether that’s a drug treatment program, homeless outreach center or mental health agency.

I also work with Quality of Life officers who provide outreach services to the homeless population to ensure we’re providing supportive post incarceration follow-up to these individuals.

Now that I feel more familiar with the jail environment and know what I can offer, it’s about timing and encouraging individuals to include their primary support in intervention. I explain to my client what the goal is, ask who I can call for support, and emphasize the other collaborator’s roles in the program who specific services relevant to their needs. When a client is receptive to the plan, I notice their demeanor shifts to a state of calmness and gratitude. The feeling is mutual.

The Impact Thus Far

Several months ago, a Justice Lab panel discussion was held. A LBPD representative shared his impression of the program thus far. He stated that prior to the implementation of the Justice Lab program, detention officers often shared concerns/complaints regarding individuals who illustrate mental health concern. They would ask for Long Beach Police Department MET (Mental Evaluation Team) to come to the jail and assess for appropriate intervention, but due to overwhelming calls for MET out in the field, a response was not always immediately available. He stated that since a clinician has been in the jail, no complaints have been made. He also noted a change in how detention officers speak and work with inmates who are uncooperative, expressing a positive impact within the jail culture.

Beyond the successful partnership with the officers and other service providers, the experiences I have had with individuals while they were in jail continue to inspire me every day, like the one in this story:

Last year, I met with a male inmate who was uncooperative and illustrated symptoms that may require psychiatric hospitalization. I sat with him outside of his cell and provided the opportunity to share his story. It turns out he was significantly triggered by being placed in a small enclosed space due to past trauma of physical and mental abuse since childhood. I validated his experience and focused on bringing him to the present (getting unstuck from his trauma) by utilizing therapeutic interventions to calm the body and mind through breathing exercises, tapping, and guided meditation. He was responsive to support and was then cooperative with jail staff regarding his release plan. Due to support and teamwork between jail staff, it was decided he would be released on his own recognizance to his family. His wife was contacted and an officer and I walked him to the lobby to meet his wife and child.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to heal through the steel bars, to be the voice for those unheard, to catch the ones who slipped through the cracks. Playing just a small part of this huge approach is truly, an honor. Together as a team, we plant a seed of hope.

*Disclaimer: Names have been changed or omitted to protect client confidentiality.

Melissa Mojica, LMFT, is the public safety clinician for the Long Beach City Innovation Team’s Justice Lab, a multi-faceted approach to divert residents in need out of the criminal justice system and toward much-needed resources like treatment and care, in which The Guidance Center is a partner. She is especially passionate about assisting individuals in producing post incarceration treatment planning that reconnects them with supportive friends, relatives, and community resources; and also providing mental health intervention alongside Detention Officers in the city jail. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2018, Mojica provided clinical therapy services to youth and families in underserved communities as a Mental Health Therapist II. Mojica earned a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.