Sarah Schachtele began her morning seated cross-legged on the floor of the Hennepin County jail, talking softly through a slot in a cell door just large enough for a guard to slip a food tray through.
Her goal: to gently persuade the homeless man on the other side to share details about his personal life, in the hope of connecting him with housing and medical care.
“This is about meeting people where they are and never giving up,” said Schachtele, a social worker for Hennepin County.
Schachtele is part of a diverse team of social workers engaged in an ambitious new effort to bring basic social services to thousands of inmates at the county jail, in the hope that once they leave jail they will be less likely to come back.
The outreach is inspired by a similar effort in New York and research showing that jail inmates who lack social services — including medical insurance, housing and treatment for drug addiction — are at far greater risk of reoffending and returning to jail. About 75 percent of Hennepin County jail bookings involve criminals who have been booked previously; 42 percent have been booked for a crime within the previous year, according to county data.
State and federal prisons have long offered social services to their inmates, but county jails have been slow to provide similar outreach, largely because they have such rapid turnover. The Hennepin County jail, for example, has 36,000 bookings a year — or 100 a day — and inmates stay an average of just seven days. Many who are booked for minor offenses such as loitering are released within hours.
Now, however, new data tools make it possible for counties to segment their jail populations and identify repeat offenders who are most likely to need social services. Hennepin County turned to a risk assessment tool used at New York’s Rikers Island, one of the nation’s largest jails, which classifies inmates at admission as having low, medium, high or very high risk of readmission based on factors such as past substance abuse, unemployment and criminal history.
Hennepin County began using the same data tool last fall. Each morning, administrators receive a printout identifying jail inmates with high or very high risk of readmission, as well as some basic information about past use of county services. Using that information, they dispatch a team that includes licensed social workers, an alcohol and drug counselor, a community health worker and case management assistants into the jail to interview inmates.
Since the initiative began in October, more than 100 people booked into the downtown jail have been connected with social services, from supportive housing to mental health counseling. Hundreds more have been enrolled for health insurance.
“We are engaging [inmates] on a level that’s simply never been done before,” said Leah Kaiser, a manager in Hennepin County’s Human Services and Public Health Department.
Among the many anti-recidivism efforts underway nationally, Hennepin County’s is “exceedingly rare” because it achieved cooperation from the sheriff’s department, judges, public defenders, social workers and even the county’s hospital, said Jesse Jannetta, an expert on jail and prison re-entry at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
“Everyone recognizes that collaboration is necessary to reduce recidivism,” Jannetta said, “but Hennepin County actually made it happen.”
For social workers entering the jail, the biggest obstacle is trust. Inmates with mental illnesses can be paranoid about a public official asking detailed questions, while repeat offenders might suspect that the workers are cops or informants in street clothes.
Cecelia Viel, who works for Twin Cities Rise, an anti-poverty workforce organization, said she wishes the county had offered such services when she struggled with a crack cocaine habit in the 1990s. At the time, she was booked into the Hennepin County jail at least seven times, mostly for crimes to fund her crack habit. Once, she was booked twice in 24 hours.
“If someone had talked to me, then maybe I could have gotten some help earlier,” Viel said. Even so, Viel said, she would have been suspicious of anyone singling her out with questions. “Trust is everything in jail, and I probably would have wondered, ‘Is that a drug counselor or a detective snitching,’ ” she said.
With time and trust in short supply, county social workers such as Schachtele have to get creative and do much of their work outside the jail walls. In many cases, Schachtele only has enough time to gather some basic facts, such as whether the inmate has a home or has a drug addiction. From there, she tries to set up an appointment outside the jail that will enable her to sustain contact.
Schachtele noted that even a small private detail can be the “hook” to developing a lasting relationship with a jail inmate.
After several minutes of questioning by Schachtele, the homeless man finally confessed that he needed a pair of eyeglasses. That gave Schachtele an opportunity to set up an appointment at a nearby Pearle Vision store.
“You start with what the person is willing to share with you,” she said, “… and then you build on that relationship.”