Steps Forward: A new county position is opening the door to resources that will help frequent flyers stay out of jail
Published 6:54 pm Friday, July 28, 2023
Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik was seeing what many were seeing at the Mower County Jail — a cycle of recidivism that saw familiar faces cycling through the system.
There were familiar stories driving the cycle: mental health issues, substance abuse and continued destructive behaviors.
“There were several individuals who were regularly coming in our doors for very short stays,” Sandvik said. “We were seeing completely off the wall behaviors or reactions to stabilizing and then immediately upon release backsliding and coming back through.”
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“It’s kind of an ongoing thing,” Sandvik continued.
However, a new position created by the county is hoping to stem and ultimately break the cycle by providing a connective bridge to resources outside of the jail.
Alysha Carlisle is Mower County’s first-ever community resource navigator, a position born out of a collaborative effort of county departments, state organizations and community organizations that at its heart provides those who are considered frequent flyers an opportunity to continue to find stabilization outside of a jail stay in order to stay out of jail.
“I think it’s having that conversation,” Carlisle said. “Not ‘why did you do that?’ What do you need? I think that’s what this position is, is just helping address whatever unmet needs they have.”
The position is not an effort to excuse the crime that landed the person in jail, but rather it’s recognizing the large gap that exists when a person leaves the jail and recognizing that those things that led to the arrest need to be fixed.
Working primarily out of the jail, Carlisle is that bridge, using partnerships within the community to get help for people who may be struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues — issues that can often lead to return stays.
Seeing the need
The creation of the position reaches back about a year and a half when the Mower County Sheriff’s Office began advocating for a social worker that could work directly with inmates in an attempt to curb recidivism, mostly appearing in the form minor offenses.
Often, these offenses were driven by the familiar stories of mental health challenges and drug and alcohol abuses, that ironically would be stabilized in the jail. However, that stabilization brought on by removing the person from the root cause of their incarceration was lost the moment they left the jail.
“The minute they get back out into the real world, their issues were those resources weren’t directly or readily available, even though many of them wanted to continue down that better path,” Sandvik said. “They fell back into chemical usage, self medicating, not medicating. A lot of these people were in for minor nuisance crimes. They are very much disrupting society, but having this planning and getting that help in place is very, very important.”
Carlisle’s position and work is not intended to provide those resources directly, but rather acts as a guide to community resources. The position required a collaboration be put in place that involved Health and Human Services, law enforcement, governmental bodies and those institutions that specialize in the kind of help needed by the inmates.
“Mental health providers, law enforcement, Health and Human Services, people from substance abuse fields. This position really came from that conversation,” said Health and Human Services Manager Casey Lind. “We’re having individuals that are going into our jail and into custody that have mental health needs, substance abuse needs or even some things beyond behavioral health.”
Carlisle started her new position in January. Her background includes graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in social work from Winona State University as well as spending a stint in cancer research at Mayo Clinic and working with Project Legacy in Rochester.
Project Legacy is similar in scope to Mower County’s navigator position, but focuses instead on youth development.
In what can frequently involve complicated and tangled back stories for many of the inmates, Carlisle instead keeps the vision of a better future simple.
“Just remembering they are people and coming into any interaction remembering these people could potentially be my neighbor,” she said. “When you come in that way and treat them that way it goes better.”
Important next steps
Carlisle’s work is not an involuntary program for those incarcerated, but instead puts the initiative on the shoulders of those who find themselves in the Mower County Jail.
In other words, they have to want to take those important next steps.
Carlisle does not initiate things with people, but rather gets referrals from jail staff who maybe recognize issues in those at the jail or who carry requests from the incarcerated.
“If they want the services, they know I exist. They reach out to me” she said, explaining that concerns of those in jail are often more than just mental health or substance abuse. They can be societal. “I’m able to check off what their need is. Housing. Are you worried about food? Do you need mental health services? A lot of things can’t be initiated until they are out of custody, but we can get the ball rolling, at least while they are there.”
That can mean any number of things including getting a bed reserved in a drug and alcohol treatment facility, helping them find resources to assist with home needs or helping ensure they do not return to a lifestyle that landed them in jail in the first place.
“Going straight from jail to treatment and back into the community seems to work a lot better,” Carlisle said.
However, not all the weight is put on the incarcerated themselves to seek help. It’s being helped along by the staff in the jail who facilitate early connections.
“The staff are helping promote the program and helping educate our customers as to what this really is and what it really means,” Sandvik said. “Someone who has chemical issues, addiction issues or choose to meet with programming personnel. Jail staff are helping to see this person is amenable to new ideas and taking help.”
While Carlisle’s position as navigator has produced welcome fruits, it simply wouldn’t be possible without connections outside of the courts and law enforcement. To work efficiently, it needs people and groups working toward a common goal.
“That’s something I hit heavy on in the jail,” Carlisle said. “I’m just the person that creates the connections. I think what a lot of people in the community just forget is a lot of us grew up with caregivers we could trust, that loved us, that provided for us. A lot of people in the jail did not experience that. They don’t trust anyone. They don’t want help because help often comes with strings attached.”
Carlisle said that organizations and businesses in Austin have become an important part of the connections that are providing people a solid base to continue improving once their stay in jail is over.
Not only does it make the process easier, but it shows people that there is something worth walking toward.
“Me building those relationships is where the magic happens,” she said.
“It speaks to the power of collaboration, too,” he said. “This position is really centered around collaboration. It was having meetings with all of those places. How do we work together helping individuals and public safety? How do we find where those things meet and make sure we get the individual connected to what’s important for them?”
“All of that collaboration has turned into helping support Alysha then going out and building collaborations with community partners,” he added.
A key in this collaboration is continuing the work after. Carlisle’s position doesn’t work if follow-up isn’t part of the overall program. That means meaningful results can take time as early pushes sometimes do not work.
“I text people all the time. If I don’t hear from them I’m texting them, I’m calling them,” Carlisle said. “They know I’m kind of there to keep them accountable. Too often people give up when they see people relapse or don’t show up.”
It’s still too early to get definitive statistics as to how the program is going. Carlisle is still early into the two-year pilot program, and yet all parties involved are reticent of early successes and hopeful optimism.
However, it does require a certain level of patience, because the question of return offenders is not a question that gets solved overnight.
“We’re seeing people getting services they need and not coming back,” Carlisle said. “It’s redefining what success is. Maybe they are still coming back, but it’s been three months this time. We’re seeing a change in the way people think. Just this willingness to receive help and ask for it, I think, is one of the biggest changes I’ve seen since I’ve started.”
Sandvik is also seeing gradual changes. Carlisle provides a face that’s not a uniform or somebody in authority telling them what to do.
“We’re seeing interest grow,” Sandvik said. “We’re definitely excited. We’re very excited in seeing the interest and the connections and really thrilled with the hard work Alysha is doing in connecting to the community resources to get buy-in and get that whole layer in place.”
For Carlisle though, her work isn’t just connections. Rather, it’s rooted in hope.
“I think it shows people that are incarcerated that despite what’s happening there is still hope. You’re worthy of hope,” she said. “We’re going to have those things in place for you. By getting them connected to resources while they are in jail … showing them there are people in the community that care while they are incarcerated is important.”