How would you describe your project?
As a team, we’re all involved in work with criminal justice populations. We’ve been particularly interested in how we can provide better access to substance use and mental health treatment among folks who are under community supervision, so people who are on probation or parole.
We proposed to do a pilot study integrating telehealth counseling into a probation parole office setting. We have a lot of folks in Arkansas who live in very rural communities. They have poor access to behavioral health treatment, yet they’re under community supervision. They’re mandated to come in and interact with their probation parole officer. Plus, if they’re required to attend treatment, they’ll have to find a way to actually show up. We figured if we integrate all this, folks could go to their probation office and get more services so they wouldn’t have to show up a bunch of different times. We designed a telehealth intervention, six counseling sessions.
We started enrolling people in that, and then COVID hit. Our probation parole offices had to shut down. We were focusing on one area, one office, and now we’re taking a step back and saying, “Ok. Let’s talk to other area offices that serve rural areas.” Some of them have telemedicine services. Talk to them about how it’s gone, challenges they’ve encountered, and also talk to people under community supervision and ask them, “Have you had any telehealth counseling appointments? If yes, what did you think? Is it something you would like to continue? Would you recommend it? Do you feel as comfortable sharing information with someone over a screen as you would if they were sitting across from you?”
You spoke with your partners, which I assume included Ben — the community partner — and the Department of Community Correction. Could you elaborate on that?
Ben is the one who kept us apprised of the changing dynamic: what was going on across Community Corrections in general and across the state. The office where we were doing our intervention is located in West Memphis, but it serves a number of counties. After conversations with them, they basically said, “Yeah. We’re not going to be able to have people even attend our regular required visits.” Working with them was key in helping us brainstorm what’s possible.
What is something you’d want somebody reading this blog to get out of it?
Doing research in partnership with the people on the frontlines doing the work is crucial. In this country, we have this perpetual punishment model. People that do things wrong, we decide we’re gonna punish them forever. Not only are we gonna lock you up, but when you get out, you’re not free. You still are under this mandatory supervision. You’re discriminated against. I don’t think people fully understand the challenges. If I can’t get access to mental illness or substance use treatment, it’s even worse.
The importance of not just this project but all of the projects I do in the criminal justice space is how to get people to be more empathetic. If we’re serious about this concept of rehabilitation, what does that mean? How do we put structures in place that support people to be their best selves?
I don’t care that people know so much about me. It’s about this work, seeing people involved in the criminal justice system in a different light, seeing their common humanity. If we had the same background and lived experiences as they had, how can we say we wouldn’t be in the same place?
What you’re saying is the broader reason for this work is that everybody deserves to be treated with respect, to be seen and understood.
Yes, and it ties into the RWJF health equity lens of everybody needs the support to be their best selves. Respect and empathy, that’s a key part of it. If we had more of that, we would be further along in addressing the inequities in our society.
Was there anything I didn’t touch on that you wanted to mention?
Public health communication is something I’ve been thinking about lately. We’re in this climate of talking at or past each other as opposed to having a conversation. I always want to know how I can better communicate with people, especially around science and research, not making it seem like I’m coming across as either condescending, aloof, or not making it real-world practical.
People aren’t gonna hear what you’re saying if they don’t feel like you respect them or value them as a person. Honestly, the people that disagree with me the most are the people I need to connect with more.
Nick Zaller is an IRL fellow from Cohort 2018-2021 of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL). To learn more about Nick, read his blog: We cannot build a culture of health without first building a culture of empathy. Read about Team Arkansas’s research project: Regional Expansion of Treatment for Addiction in Corrections via Telehealth: Project REACH.
Interviews conducted, transcribed and condensed by Maria Bertrand, MPH ‘21. Nick Zaller reviewed and approved this blog.
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.