Transitioning from Jail to Shelter: A Therapist’s Experience

Since 2018, I have served as the Public Safety Clinician in the Long Beach City Jail. In the midst of the pandemic, I was temporarily reassigned to three different shelters to provide mental health services for six months and returned to the jail in October 2020.

I was eager to return to the jail, as the need for mental health support services is so valuable and necessary to those in crisis; but in the six months I spent working in the shelters, I built a steady caseload providing weekly psychotherapy and built collaborative support efforts with multiple providers.

The experience of working alongside the Health Department’s Homeless Services sector and providing therapy to People Experiencing Homelessness (PEH) was a valuable opportunity both personally and professionally. Due to COVID-19, PEH were immediately housed and provided basic needs, including free on-site medical and mental health care. For the first time, many individuals received weekly therapy.

Working directly with PEH provided me with empathic resonance upon returning to the jail. It felt as though my understanding of their circumstances were no longer just witnessed or heard in that moment. Visiting with residents at the shelters on a consistent basis helped me absorb the complexities of the daily challenges they experience. I witnessed their struggle with addiction and mental illness, leaving the program because of strict program policy, and their failed attempts at multivariate treatment plans due to many challenges from both client and provider aspects.

I felt like my heart expanded and my eyes widened. Now that I have returned to the jail, I am talking to someone asking for help through steel bars. I admit, the feeling of distress increased because the uncertainties of accessing effective care were a challenge during this time, especially for the underserved populations I am here to support. Homelessness, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and the justice-involved amid a pandemic… how could I allocate services knowing how scarce program enrollments were at this time?

Many of the challenges with returning to the jail involved reconnecting with service providers, finding a shelter that was not on lockdown, and figuring out a client’s arraignment plan regarding early release or who gets transported to the county jail (speaking in relevance to mass decarceration amid the pandemic). And not to forget, the civil unrest and increased pressure on law enforcement. My alliance in working alongside police officers remained, though my compassion and concern to their own well-being increased, too. It felt like I had to “check-in” with everyone when reporting to work. Admittedly, as a natural born empath, I felt like it was my duty, and I took honor in that.

As part of my transition back to the jail, I started to have so many questions about the macro-systems in which we are disproportionally placed, whether it be justice-involved and court proceedings, housing eligibility for PEH, or severe and persistent mental illness and recidivism rates. Or the lack of opportunity for convicted felons to rebuild their lives after release, second, third, or fourth chances for drug addicted persons who leave rehabilitation programs prematurely but come back asking for another chance. Too many questions, not enough “good enough” responses. It is safe to say, I felt depleted.

Fast forward to Spring 2021, and it is still touch and go as we are all creating a new norm for ourselves. Systemic reform is here, and the impact is hitting everyone. Regarding justice reform, pilot programs in jails and courts are emerging, diversion efforts are increasing, and doors to community-based organizations are re-opening. In addition, trauma-informed care is being discussed in further depth to integrate this concept in standard trainings for jails and courts.

The feeling of uncertainty toward systemic oppression lingers but I choose to focus on the wins. Holding everything inside of what I have seen and the questions I want answers to, will not happen overnight. Therefore, my focus can only be beneficial when it is productive for me at this time. So, I keep this simple for myself, and here it is- if I can help someone feel seen, heard, and supported just today, no matter the person- then my gratitude and compassion are fed. And tomorrow, I can get up and do it all over again.

How You Can Help

Speaking up is difficult, I get this. Many of us who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and experience systemic oppression may not even understand the complexity of our experiences and how they are deeply rooted within us. You have the choice to be seen and be heard. Many support groups and systemic reform initiatives want to hear your voice. Check out local chapters for reform initiatives often supported by community-based organizations via the organization’s website, social media platforms, and county websites. The Guidance Center offers many resources within Los Angeles County on their website @ tgclb.org.

In Gratitude,

Melissa

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.

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