When Deidre Machesney, an Oriana House caseworker, went to an Ohio prison for the first time this week, she expected to see men locked in cells with nothing to do.

She instead saw a facility where prisoners are offered mental health and substance abuse services, given the chance to take high school and college classes, learn a vocation — and even train dogs.

“I didn’t realize there was this much rehabilitation,” Machesney said Thursday after spending the afternoon at Grafton Correctional Institution in Lorain County. “It’s an awesome place.”

She was among 10 Summit County Common Pleas Court employees who traveled to Grafton to tour the minimum- to medium-security prison that houses about 2,000 inmates.

Judge Amy Corrigall Jones organized the tour for herself and the staff of Valor Court, a diversion program for veterans, and SCORR (Summit County Offender Recidivism Reduction), a new probation program, to provide them with a glimpse of what prison is like.

“I want my team to understand — when we have discussions of sending people to prison — what does that mean in practicality,” Jones said.

At the start of the prison tour, Warden LaShann Eppinger told the Summit County contingent that the things the prison does are similar to the court’s efforts. He said it tries to help address inmates’ needs so that when they leave they’re better able to function in society. That help includes treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues and medical problems such as hepatitis and hypertension.

“Our goal is returning a better person than came into the institution,” he said.

Jones asked Eppinger if he likes his job.

“It’s bittersweet,” he responded. “I see where we come up short in society. Some guys are going to end up here.”

Eppinger said one of the prison’s new goals is better collaboration with inmates’ families, including involving them in mental health and substance abuse treatment and post-release plans.

“That’s what we’re doing next,” Jones said to Chris Stahr, the community development director for Valor Court.

Deputy Jennifer Gillece Black said the prison recently got help from the mother of an inmate with severe mental issues who was scheduled to be released and said he wasn’t going. Black was concerned he might have to be forcibly removed. She reached out to his mother, who came to the prison and worked with staff on a plan for his departure and for how to help him outside of prison.

A few days later, she said, the inmate willingly left the prison.

“His mother was able to help us in resolving a situation that could have been ugly,” Black said.

 

Mental health help

 

Inmates receive outpatient and residential therapy and can participate in support groups for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

Jennifer Berry, the assistant mental health administrator, said about 370 inmates receive mental health services. She estimated that 90 percent of the inmates likely have a mental disorder but may not seek help and are able to function without it.

“In prison, mental-health wise, they are better off because they have a captive audience,” Berry said. “You can’t lose them under a bridge. Even the sickest person gets a better quality of care than he or she does on the street.”

When inmates with mental problems leave prison, they receive a 30-day supply of their medication and an appointment at a community facility near where they will live, Berry said.

 

Help for veterans

 

The prison has a waiting list for its Veterans Unit, which is open to veterans and those who haven’t served in the military.

A white board beside the door shows a long list of activities for those in the unit. These include Spanish, guitar, meditation, urban gardening, art, resumé writing and help with Veterans Affairs claims.

The veterans operate a dining room for prison staff, with proceeds donated to several area nonprofits.

The unit and its Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) chapter have received numerous awards.

“They may be incarcerated but they were soldiers first,” Sgt. Ivan Roberts said.

“That’s great for them — it gives them a sense of purpose,” said Stahr, who is with Valor Court.

Roberts said the Veterans Unit has a friendly competition with other housing units to see which can go the longest without a conduct report.

James Wesson, who runs the unit, said the staff rewards positive behavior by providing activities the veterans enjoy, like showing a movie on the weekend.

 

Teaching and learning

 

Inmates at Grafton have the chance to teach and learn.

Inmates who participate in the W.A.G.S. (Working Animals Giving Service 4 Kids) program train dogs to assist children with conditions such as autism and epilepsy. They work with the dogs from when they are about 8 weeks to a year and a half old.

Inside the unit, a wall of puppy paws shows the dogs placed in homes. Another bulletin board displays photographs of kids who are waiting for dogs. Each cell door has the name of the inmate and his canine charge.

When inmates in the program are released from prison, they receive a dog trainer certificate.

Inmates at Grafton also have numerous opportunities to learn. They can take classes for their high school diploma or GED and college courses for an associate or bachelor’s degree.

The prison also offers several vocational and apprentice programs, including in welding, horticulture and machine shop.

After the tour, Susan Sweeney, the assistant Summit County Court executive officer, said she was struck by the similarities between the goals of the prison and the court in helping people address problems.

“Instead of silos, we should collaborate,” she said. “It just makes you really think about how we might better utilize the services available.”

Stahr and Wesson plan to form a closer link between Valor Court and the prison. When the court sends people to prison, the court will try to have them placed in Grafton so they can be housed in the Veterans Unit. Similarly, when inmates in the unit are being released and plan to return to Summit County, the prison will alert Valor Court so they can be part of the program.

Wesson hopes to form this same type of partnership with other veteran’s court programs. He urged any court officials who are interested to contact the prison.

“Without a team effort, I don’t think it’s possible to make a big push,” Wesson said.

 

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.