Prison program helps inmates rebuild lives
The Commercial Appeal
By Alex Doniach
March 6, 2009
Kim Dunlap nursed her bipolar disorder with powder cocaine, an addiction that eventually led her to crime and later to jail.
But while serving time on charges of forgery and identify theft four years ago, Dunlap, 45, received a lifeline.
A Shelby County public defender introduced her to a county-run, decade-long program called Project Jericho that helped her access the medications, treatment and counseling she needed to get out of jail and get well.
Dunlap seized the opportunity and on Thursday she told a conference of local and state government, law enforcement and public health officials that Project Jericho saved her life.
"I can't tell you where I'd be today if it wasn't for this," she said.
Hosted by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, the Jericho Conference at the University of Memphis was designed to boost area awareness about the project and to build support for more local and state funding.
The conference was also designed to launch the Jericho Initiative, created to extend Jericho's reach to other parts of the criminal justice system.
The project, which diverts mentally ill inmates to supervised treatment programs and other alternatives to prison, helps about 100 people a year. The county funded it with $500,000 this year.
Stephen Bush, a supervising attorney with the public defender's office, helped start Jericho along with Wharton and coordinates arrangements with judges and prosecutors.
Bush said reception has been positive because it provides remedies for the sick and breaks cycles of continuous re-arrests. Inmates with mental illness tend to stay in jail two to five times longer than regular inmates.
Statistics show success. Overall, more than half of Jericho graduates have no further arrests. About a quarter wind up back in jail, but overall, people in the program spend 99 fewer days in jail a year.
Sheriff Mark Luttrell said the project is one of four methods a recent jail consultant study endorsed to keep the county's jail population down and prevent the county from building a $400 million jail. Luttrell estimates expanding these programs, which also include the drug court, could save at least 185 jail beds a year.
George M. Little, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Corrections, pointed out that it costs $60 a day, or $22,000 a year, to keep someone incarcerated in the state prison system. Mentally ill inmates can cost almost twice that.
Wharton said the initiative is about building the network, in and out of government, to help people with mental illness lead more productive lives.
-- Alex Doniach: 529-5231