Driggers, Stepping Up manager, speaks at Lions Club

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, March 4, 2020

VALLEY — Chambers County is ahead of the curve in evaluating inmates who might be struggling with mental illness. It’s part of only 21 counties in Alabama to have a grant-funded program known as Stepping Up. The case manager for the program, Jessica Driggers, was the guest speaker at the Monday evening meeting of the Valley Lions Club and talked about what she does.

On Tuesday, there were 147 inmates at the Chambers County Jail. That number fluctuates from day-to-day but is usually somewhere around that number.

Driggers comes to the county from East Alabama Mental Health. It’s her job to evaluate all of the inmates. She started doing this in mid-February and has evaluated approximately 40 inmates thus far.

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“Every client will be given a brief mental health screening to look for indicators of severe mental illness,” she said. “There’s also a screening for substance abuse.”

So far, six of the 40 inmates screened have been found to have some type of mental illness.

“I don’t assess the type of mental illness, it’s my job to screen for it,” Driggers said.

Mental illness is a behavioral pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning with anyone who has it. It can be persistent, relapsing and remitting or occur in a single episode. Disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, dementia or schizophrenia are diagnosed by mental health professionals.

Because of state budget cuts in recent years, some individuals suffering from mental illness who would formerly have been sent to a state mental health institution are now being incarcerated in jails.

Driggers said the biggest problem facing people who are mentally ill is housing. In many cases, there’s not a family member who is able or willing to take in a mentally ill person and care for them. All too often, people affected by mental illness have no place to go and wind up living on the street or in abandoned houses. If they are not taking medicine for their illness, their condition will only worsen.

Driggers is a native of the Tampa, Florida area. She grew up in Alexander City, Alabama and attended Jacksonville State University, where she earned a bachelor’s in communications and a master’s in public administration. She worked in the penal system in Florida for ten years before returning to Alabama. Her parents, Kim and Corley Smith, are retired and are attempting to start a farm near LaFayette.

The county’s Stepping Up program is being funded by a $50,000 grant. Driggers has been in Chambers County since November and has an office inside the detention facility. “The county commission, sheriff’s office and court system has been very supportive of me, and I appreciate that,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be here. It’s a blessing the way it has worked out. My job is great, I have a lot of support, and that’s good. I don’t think most people realize how many people are affected by mental illness. Studies show that one out of every four people have some kind of mental illness. Worldwide, an estimated 450 million people have some kind of mental illness.”

Driggers said studies show that an estimated two million times each year a person with mental illness is incarcerated in the U.S.

“Many times, they are out of their meds, and many times they just show up at the jail,” she said. “A large percentage of them have experienced some kind of substance abuse.”

There’s a big problem of local jails spending lots of money to take care of mentally ill patients only to be in a perpetual cycle.

“When they are released, they don’t take care of themselves and go right back to jail,” Driggers said.

When an inmate she assesses shows clear signs of being mentally ill, Driggers schedules an appointment for them at the O.D. Alsobrook Center in Valley, where they can get medications for their illness.

“I help their families figure out where they can live and to make sure they take their meds when they are supposed to,” she said.

Stepping Up started in Alabama in 2018.

“I think it’s fantastic we got in on the second round, ahead of most counties in the state,” Driggers said. “From what I have experienced, there is a definite need for this in Chambers County. Stepping Up is an innovative program. It would be good, I think, to have it in every county in the state. Hopefully, this program will continue.”

Driggers said that being around inmates isn’t the safest place in the world to be – “I saw six capital murderers last week,” she said – but the staff at the jail has done a great job of keeping her safe.

“It’s been a wonderful experience for me thus far, and I think this program is doing a lot of good,” she said.

Stepping up makes use of two techniques: (1) brief jail mental health screening and (2) something known as “un-cope,” a substance abuse tool.

“We are trying to address both,” Driggers said. “We are doing our best to address all issues I am facing. It’s very rewarding when they come to me because they trust me. Some inmates have substance abuse problems, some are mentally ill and some have both problems. Once they are prescribed meds, they can get them at the jail.’

“I try my best to be the person they come to when they feel bad or are not taking care of themselves,” Driggers said. “It’s good for them to know they have someone to go to.”

Driggers added that everyone knows what it means to be treated with respect and to be shown dignity.

“They know if you have it for them,” she said. “I consider it my job to treat everyone with respect and to show them dignity. I do this so they will have some trust in me. I think I have gotten honest answers from them. It’s my belief that if you treat someone the way they want to be treated they will be responsive.”