Rural Jails Turn to Community Health Workers To Help the Newly Released Succeed

Garrett Clark estimates he has spent about six years in the Sanpete County Jail, a plain concrete building perched on a dusty hill just outside this small, rural town where he grew up.

He blames his addiction. He started using in middle school, and by the time he was an adult he was addicted to meth and heroin. At various points, he’s done time alongside his mom, his dad, his sister, and his younger brother.

“That’s all I’ve known my whole life,” said Clark, 31, in December.

Clark was at the jail to pick up his sister, who had just been released. The siblings think this time will be different. They are both sober. Shantel Clark, 33, finished earning her high school diploma during her four-month stay at the jail. They have a place to live where no one is using drugs.

And they have Cheryl Swapp, the county sheriff’s new community health worker, on their side.

“She saved my life probably, for sure,” Garrett Clark said.

Swapp meets with every person booked into the county jail soon after they arrive and helps them create a plan for the day they get out.

She makes sure everyone has a state ID card, a birth certificate, and a Social Security card so they can qualify for government benefits, apply to jobs, and get to treatment and probation appointments. She helps nearly everyone enroll in Medicaid and apply for housing benefits and food stamps. If they need medication to stay off drugs, she lines that up. If they need a place to stay, she finds them a bed.

Then Swapp coordinates with the jail captain to have people released directly to the treatment facility. Nobody leaves the jail without a ride and a drawstring backpack filled with items like toothpaste, a blanket, and a personalized list of job openings.

“A missing puzzle piece,” Sgt. Gretchen Nunley, who runs educational and addiction recovery programming for the jail, called Swapp.

Swapp also assesses the addiction history of everyone held by the county. More than half arrive at the jail addicted to something.

Nationally, 63% of people booked into local jails struggle with a substance use disorder — at least six times the rate of the general population, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The incidence of mental illness in jails is more than twice the rate in the general population, federal data shows. At least 4.9 million people are arrested and jailed every year, according to an analysis of 2017 data by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization that documents the harm of mass incarceration. Of those incarcerated, 25% are booked two or more times, the analysis found. And among those arrested twice, more than half had a substance use disorder and a quarter had a mental illness.

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