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Animals, yoga among programs aimed at helping Gwinnett’s mental health inmates

Charles Barankowski, far left, and his dalmatians visit the Gwinnett County jail as part of a monthly animal-assisted therapy program geared toward mental health inmates. (Staff photo: Tyler Estep)

Charles Barankowski, far left, and his dalmatians visit the Gwinnett County jail as part of a monthly animal-assisted therapy program geared toward mental health inmates. (Staff photo: Tyler Estep)

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Charles Barankowski, center, and his dalmatians visit the Gwinnett County jail as part of a monthly animal-assisted therapy program geared toward mental health inmates. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

LAWRENCEVILLE — As they do monthly, Ditto and Pinto are visiting the Gwinnett County jail. On this day in the women’s mental health block, a small circle of inmates crowds around the well-trained dalmatians, sitting cross-legged and listening to owner Charles Baranowski tell stories.

They put their hands on the dogs, feel the warmth and coo. They joke about counting the spots and ask about their history.

Christy Simpson, the therapist leading the afternoon’s session, senses a teaching point.

“This baby was unwanted. He was discarded,” Simpson says. “He was a rescue. But he’s gone on and has brought so much love and light into this world, with visits at prisons, nursing homes, schools. Everything.”

“So there’s hope,” she continues. “Do you see what I mean? There’s always hope, no matter what you’ve been through.”

Animal-assisted therapy is believed to, among other things, reduce the stress level and improve the overall mood of incarcerated patients. It’s been going strong at the Gwinnett County jail for about six months now, the most recent in a series of new offerings aimed at mental health inmates — things like music- and art-assisted therapies, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and yoga.

Most have been introduced within the last two years or so and are paid for without using any taxpayer dollars. Nancy Jaffee, president of the Gwinnett chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the offerings are “on the cutting edge” compared to other correctional facilities.

Their goal, as far as Sheriff Butch Conway is concerned, is to reduce recidivism.

“If you take care of them while you’ve got them here, then maybe they don’t come back,” Conway said, noting that his jail has had the same mental health inmates booked 20, 30, 40 times for various petty crimes. “… We’ve got a lot more treatment options than we’ve had in the past. We realized it causes us a lot of extra work just having a revolving door situation.”

At any given time, there are about 400 Gwinnett County inmates taking psychotropic drugs. Roughly $2 million a year is spent on mental health care at the jail, and 10 employees of health care provider Corizon are devoted specifically to the cause.

No specific sheriff’s office statistics exist but, when tied in with the recent launch of two larger-scale programs, frequent training for deputies and the aforementioned therapies have seemingly made an impact.

Two years ago, the sheriff’s office launched GRIP (or the Gwinnett Re-entry Intervention Program) in an attempt to better prepare certain inmates, including those from mental health units, for the world outside. Technically a coalition with several local nonprofits, nearly 500 Gwinnett County inmates have gone through the GRIP program since its inception, receiving help with things like counseling, clothing, and a place to stay.

“I don’t know mental health’s specific statistics, but we’ve had quite a bit of success,” said Dep. Jacob Baird, GRIP’s coordinator.

Perhaps most important to the overall process was the launch of a Gwinnett County mental health court, spearheaded by Judge Karen Beyers. Started about a year ago, the diversion and alternate sentencing program is available only to certain candidates with what’s called severe and persistent mental illness, or SPMI.

Fewer inmates with SPMI are heading to the Gwinnett County jail, and those that do are tied to specific agreements reached in mental health court.

“If a mentally ill person commits a crime, and we ‘punish’ with the consequence of jail, they are likely to do it again when out on the streets,” Jaffee said.

Meanwhile, Conway said new offerings at the jail are always in the works. That statement is backed up by the recent addition of cats to the animal-assisted therapy program.

“We’re just looking at any way we can affect the money that has to be spent on incarceration,” Conway said. “There’s a lot more to it than most people realize.”