An interview with Abagail Reiman, board member of NAMI Seattle on how her experience as a corrections officer informed her on the intersections between mental health and the cycles of incarceration and homelessness.
By Riley Graham. Contributors: Peter Strigen, Richa Mandsaurwale, Lisa Melger, and Patrick Godoy, University of Washington Bothell School of Business
My room was messy and dusty, having not been tidied up for a while it had all the reminders of classes I had taken before, such as scattered papers and books laid out and about my desk. It was a very nice day by Washington standards, the kind you would want to go outside and enjoy before the next spout of rain comes with the gray clouds. I showed up a little early for class, as I was rather nervous since I had never really interviewed anyone before, my train of thought was almost always disrupted by the ding sound of a new person joining the zoom. After a couple dings, my group mates showed up one by one, and then finally Abagail appeared. She wore a casual black shirt and was sitting on her couch, the casualness of her appearance made me feel at ease.
Behind her you could see her wall. It was fashioned with different pictures and placards that depicted flowers with a name of a city or country listed on each. These were a record of all the flower markets she had visited around the world, however those were not the only kinds of records she had. It stood out from all the others; there atop her wall was a Johnny Cash album, and that album was taking all of my attention, as it was the only thing on the wall not as colorful as the rest. The album was black with white writing on it listing the songs and a couple quotes. It was there because Johnny had struggles with the prison system and ended up there himself, this was a subtle reminder of her time as a corrections officer in my eyes. She had mentioned that she was a corrections officer, you could tell that she remembered this time fondly. Abagail remembered the people she had connected with and her reasons for leaving.
Before becoming a corrections officer, Abagail had gone to college and pursued a bachelor’s in psychology. However, in 2021, Abagail would soon leave her job as a corrections officer of 3 years at Douglas County Corrections in Omaha Nebraska to pursue her master’s degree in criminology and forensic science. She decided to do this after realizing that not enough was being done for inmates afflicted with mental illness, she felt the desire to be the change she wanted to see and left to have a bigger impact. Abagail knew that the people placed in correctional facilities with mental health issues needed more help than they were getting, and locking them up, then tossing them back out into society without adequate treatment is not the way to do it.
Was there a certain moment during your time as a corrections officer that made you realize that the system needed to change the ways that it treats people with mental health issues?
AR: To be honest, there were a lot of moments, […]. The word I’m looking for is like very intense moments where people were getting mistreated. They weren’t receiving the help that they really needed. There were people that were in jail that, […] they didn’t belong there. They should have been getting help in other ways […] I worked in a mental health unit specifically for people with severe mental health issues. And so I saw a lot of people being overlooked. A lot of people who would go out on the streets. They all have. They had mental illness, and they’d get thrown out on the streets, not have a place to stay, and they purposely break the law so that they’d be able to come back into jail for someplace to live, and I just don’t think that’s right. So that’s what it starts like. That’s what sparked my spark. That was a certain moment. I guess you could say.
Do you think that serving as a corrections officer has helped you make more informed decisions as a board member of NAMI Seattle?
AR: Yeah, I think my experience as a corrections officer has shaped me in every way. I learned so much, I saw so much. And it really made me want to speak out specifically for people who deal with the criminal justice system, and it really shapes what I advocate for, and who I advocate for. Because I feel like those people that are at the highest risk are the ones that get the least amount of help.
Could you give an example of how your time as a corrections officer helped your understanding of mental health, and an example of how studying for your two degrees helped further your understanding of mental health?
AR: I think my time as a corrections officer really helped me begin to understand how complex mental health is, and how much it ties into everything else in a person’s surroundings. Getting incarcerated is just another form of trauma, that trauma makes their illnesses more complex and more difficult to treat. I think it’s just broadening my scope, because I feel like a lot of people don’t really understand it from the criminal justice point of view, and they just look out one way.
What have you seen be the most effective type of support when it comes to working specifically with inmates that have been incarcerated with mental illness?
AR: [the key with] Inmates specifically, is being consistent, […] to gain a person’s trust you have “to be consistent. You have to. If it’s a rule, you have to follow through with that rule with everyone. It doesn’t matter who it is. That’s something that at least the place that I worked at really went trying to pound into our heads. It is the best way I can say it. They would preach that every day be consistent, and people will first of all, they respect you, and they’ll listen to you, and they’ll look to you for advice. They’ll look to you for getting help. I had this if you would care for an anecdote. I knew an inmate who she was developmentally regressed. And so she would refuse to come out of her room. She was terrified of getting in the showers and things like that, and I got to know her. I was consistent with her. I would reach out to her and really make an effort, and eventually I was able to get her to work with me. We would play games we would like. I really got her out of her shell, and I think I really made a difference with her. That was the moment that I knew I wanted to do that. I needed to make a change with the system.
What have been your experiences with people with mental illnesses, and what do you see a need for to support their entry back into society?
AR: I think one of the articles [you shared with me] touched on re-entry, and I’m fairly certain that most jails and prison systems have a re-entry system, but a lot of people fall through the cracks, especially people who are mentally ill. People who are mentally ill aren’t gonna always ask for the medications that they need. [They’re not going to], get prescribed medication while in jail. You have to ask for it specifically, or ask to be seen by a psychiatrist. That takes months and months to get seen by them, and sometimes a person doesn’t have months and months. So they’re put in jail, released from jail without any kind of treatment, for whatever behavioral health issue is wrong with them, right? So being able to bridge that gap and get them connected to services like more thoroughly they have like, I said. They have re-entry for these people, but they don’t follow through with it, and there needs to be some kind of follow-through with it.
How do homeless people deal with related stress, not knowing where to sleep, the challenges of finding jobs and just trying to connect?
AR: Being homeless is probably one of the biggest traumas a person can face. They see so much. They have to protect themselves like you said, they can’t really sleep […] and this is how I explain it to my parents. The drug use, they can’t go to sleep at night to protect themselves.
So they do drugs so that they can stay awake throughout the night right? And then they have to continue taking their drugs, because if they don’t, then they’ll be sick, and they could potentially die if they don’t continue taking them right, and so it’s just like a continuous cycle. As far as trying to get services, It’s also super difficult for them.
The people that work in nonprofit organizations are really underpaid. If I’m honest, they are overworked, and not a ton of people do the work because it’s very stressful, and it’s very hard to see those people in situations like that. I would argue and say that it really contributes to their mental health, I would say. And so I really don’t like when I hear people talk about homeless people, they would say stuff like “I don’t like you”. I would say, you really shouldn’t look at them like oh, they’re homeless. They just do drugs. They just do that, like they have their own story. Every single person I’ve talked to that’s living on the street has a whole story. They have a background of trauma, and that’s what led them to this situation. I’m not going to say every time, but most of the time they don’t choose this, and so how do they deal with it? I can’t tell you. I don’t know how a person deals with that.
How do we solve the issue between mental health and essentially crime, and what justice is?
AR: This advocacy is super important work, because […] to reduce the stigma. I currently work for a nonprofit organization that is based on the housing first model. Which basically is a harm reduction model, we give them housing. They don’t have to be clean. They don’t have to do anything. That was kind of beside the point. But my point is, we basically have to convince people and advocate that this direction that we’re trying to move us in is the right direction, right? And that’s the whole point of advocacy.
I personally believe that the direction that the United States is moving in, is close to the right direction, as far as being more progressive. And the biggest thing I have to say is, we just need to follow through. They might make a step in the right direction, but it just never turns out the way it’s supposed to be like it. You can look at other countries, and they have a lot of these [progressive] laws in place, and it’s because they have buy-in from their community.
One of the best prison system systems in the world is the Nordic prison system, because it’s very community based. And yeah, I guess you know about it. […], it would be great, it would be a great thing here, but the amount of people that we have incarcerated right now. It just wouldn’t transfer, […]. It’s a lot of work, and it would take a lot of years and a lot of buy in. And yeah, it’s a lot.
Not many people that have seen and experienced as much as Abagail would speak up and take action the way she has, it takes a special kind of drive to be the change you want to see. Her experience with the legal system and not being shy to speak up about its faults was something to behold. Abagail wants people to realize that having a mental illness is not the fault of the person with it and they do not deserve to end up in jail. So them ending up homeless upon release is unjustified, they need more help to get fully integrated into society and Abagail is actively trying to figure out what needs to be done.
This article is a collaborative piece created by a group of University of Washington Bothell School of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course.
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This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.