Before they’re let out of jail, every prisoner in the LA County Jail System has to work out a “discharge plan” – a set of steps they can follow, that fit their own life, to keep them from returning to crime and ending back up in jail.
It’s hard to plan, and even harder to do: it can mean learning new skills, looking for new kinds of work (with a criminal record), moving away from people they’ve known, and breaking old habits.
Bill West is the man who helps them make it work.
The Mental Health Services Coordinator for the LA County Department of Mental Health Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Bill leads a team of people who develop discharge plans – helping inmates who have done their time figure out what they need to do, and how to do it, so that they don’t re-offend and, come back.
“We’re starting to follow the inmates into the community after they leave our system, to get them additional help and resources,” Bill says. “So if they need anger management, domestic violence classes, if they need social security income, if they need residential housing, mental health treatment, psychotropic medications, so they won’t be on the street, these are some of the things that we do.”
It makes a difference, but it’s not easy. Bill’s received a lot of training and a lot of education – a bachelor’s in business management from The University of Redlands in Business Management; a Master’s Degree in Human Behavior/Counseling from The National University, San Diego, Calif; and Master’s of Social Work Degree from The University of Southern California with a concentration in Community, Organizing, Planning and Administration.
But it was his PhD program at Saybrook, he says, that emphasized the way his work in the field could improve by acknowledging an inmate’s fundamental humanity, and speaking directly to it. That’s made a huge difference.
“The Los Angeles County Jail System can be a very violent place to work for staff, and inmates; especially, during a one-to-one counseling session where you are sitting a cross the table from an inmates that may be responding to internal stimuli, angry, and non-compliant with medications,” Bill says. “Shortly after my first residential conference at Saybrook, we started offering the inmates the choice of having a spiritual component to their therapy in addition to our traditional psychotherapy treatment programs, and after 5-6 weeks we noticed that the incidents of fighting in the pods had decreased significantly, and those inmates who had attended a religious services were the ones who would try to bring peace and non-violence into the different jail cells."
His work in psychology at Saybrook, he says, makes that kind of success possible.
“You work with so many different kinds of inmates, different races: different religions, different educational levels … violent crime, white collar crime, murderers, embezzlers … with very different backgrounds. You can’t make assumptions or have biases. You need to look at them, as people, and see where they’re at. The classes I’ve taken in humanistic psychology have been very beneficial to me – they’ve helped me learn how to do that. I’m able to look differently at inmates, and work differently with them. I certainly think having gone to Saybrook has helped me through some enormously difficult times. I could always pick up the phone and talk to my chair. It was great.”