When Holly Priscu worked as a criminal defense attorney, she quickly realized that legal motions and briefs weren’t going to provide enough help for her clients in the long run. Instead, she said, what her clients needed the most was mental health help.
“Through that work, I realized that substance use disorders were very common,” she said. “It was hard for me to try to do all these legal things when I could see that these people just needed to go to treatment, or needed someone to talk to, or needed counseling,” she said.
Priscu decided to approach the issue from a different angle and quit her job as a lawyer. Now a graduate student in mental health counseling at Montana State University, she provides counseling services to inmates at the Gallatin County jail as an intern with Building Good Neighbors, a program that the university and the detention center recently established.
Through the program, Priscu spends about eight to 10 hours per week in individual counseling sessions with inmates. She also leads or co-leads three different therapy groups for about five hours weekly, including a group focused on life skills, a group focused on addiction and another focused on social, emotional, thinking and coping skills.
Priscu said the inmates she helps range in age from 19 to about 60, and most are awaiting trial or sentencing. While inmates may be there for as few as 48 hours, others may be there for as long as nine months, and it is the longer-serving inmates she sees most.
Priscu said the internship is her “dream job.”
“It’s a privilege to see a side of these people that the media doesn’t show or people never think about,” she said. “It’s an honor to have these people – many of whom don’t trust anybody – trust you. It’s powerful.”
Another graduate counseling student, Carrie Welch, also co-leads a weekly therapy group at the jail. The group focuses on improving health, relationships and being a productive community member.
“We do mindfulness activities, meditation, art… we learn about relationships and co-dependency,” Welch said. “It’s really fun, and they really enjoy it.”
Building Good Neighbors is supported by a $20,000 seed grant from the MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development, which houses the counseling program. Those funds are used to pay the students for time they’ve spent outside of their internship hours developing the program, as well as research conducted by MSU counseling professors.
The rest of the funds will be used to provide counseling services at MSU’s Human Development Clinic for inmates after they’ve left the detention center. The clinic is a community mental health agency that is affiliated with MSU’s graduate counseling program.
Counseling sessions offered through the clinic are staffed by MSU graduate counseling students who are supervised by licensed mental health professionals. This year, two students have been involved with Building Good Neighbors, and MSU counseling professor Ed Dunbar, the faculty member leading the program, expects it will continue in the future.
As part of the supervision process, Dunbar goes to the detention center periodically to observe the students’ groups. In addition, he meets regularly with both Welch and Priscu to discuss questions they have and talk about ideas and resources. One of the things they discuss is how the students can take care of themselves in a demanding work situation.
“The burnout rate is really high for those who work with this population,” Dunbar said. “We talk about self-care and about not letting the work carry over into (the student’s) personal life.”
Before joining the MSU faculty, Dunbar specialized in addictions and criminal justice issues as a counseling professional in a variety of clinical settings. He said the hope is that inmates who participate in counseling sessions or groups while in the detention center will be more likely to seek counseling once they’re released.
“For many people, it’s tough when they transition (out of jail). Often, they have no resources,” he said. “Our hope is that already knowing the person they can go see for counseling will help with the transition.”
Priscu said the work has given her a sense of purpose.
“The inmates don’t have a lot of people who are there solely to give them space to talk, or to take one hour to do something positive,” she said. “They definitely appreciate it.”