Washington State Penitentiary psychologist earns national acclaim for programs

Tamara Russell sits in on one of the group sessions run by her staff at the Washington State Penitentiary.

Tamara Russell sits in on one of the group sessions run by her staff at the Washington State Penitentiary. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — Tamara Russell has found the old saying to be true — big things do come in small packages.

In Russell’s universe at Washington State Penitentiary, tiny has proved mighty for prisoners living with mental illness. So much so that Russell was recently named Outstanding Clinician for 2013 by the American Psychological Association.

In its public service criminal justice system division award, the prison psychologist was chosen for her program of therapeutic activities for some of the state’s most dangerously mentally-ill offenders.

“Her innovative programs often include cooperation with community resources and focus on giving back to the community,” association officials said in a news release.

Russell is credited for creating a number of ways for 157 of the nearly 600 prisoners with a mental health diagnosis at the prison to better cope with life behind bars. That eventually translates to better safety on a broader scope.

“The majority of WSP offenders will release back into communities,” Russell said. “It’s important that they are successful and not come back to us.”

To understand the significance of Russell’s award requires knowing its genesis.

She arrived at the penitentiary in 2010, after returning to graduate school as an adult and finishing up in a practicum program at Oregon State Hospital. Repaying those school loans made the lights of the state prison system look even brighter, Russell said.

She found many inmates living with mental illness to be “seriously overmedicated,” living separately from the prison’s main population and feeling they were at the end of the road, she said. “To me, that would be an incredibly hopeless place to be.”

Change had to come, to actions by her clients and to the perspective others had about mental illness, she said.

But curriculum or equipment to create new programs weren’t in the budget picture, said Shari Hall, spokeswoman for Washington State Penitentiary.

Russell had to start with the smallest of steps, keeping costs at about $3,000 a year for staff training and materials. She knew traditional therapy is typically not useful with younger men.

“So we had to try to do it with activities, setting up situations where therapy is happening naturally,” she said.

The psychologist and her staff developed a roster of 26 educational, social and leisure-skill groups available every quarter for prisoners diagnosed with a mental illness.

There’s the kitten foster program, “Kittens in the Klink,” in partnership with Blue Mountain Humane Society. Convicts are paired with motherless cats needing bottle feeding, cuddling and help to learn to not bite and claw. The temporary guardian cares for the cat until it’s old enough to go to the animal shelter for adoption.

The focus on the animal is an excellent way to teach altruism, Russell pointed out. “A lot of guys never realized they could do something for others.”

She also runs a gardening program. Her clients raise flowers — the marigolds grew enormously well this year, adding to islands of flowers providing spots of color in a concrete-and-razor-wire landscape. The flora is donated to local nursing homes in hand-decorated vases made of recycled soda bottles, courtesy of inmates.

A daily medical walking program designed by the psychologist get offenders out of their cells and into some physical exercise, helping mitigate the social isolation that accompanies mental illness.

This list of opportunities is extensive. Substance use, art therapy, victim impact. The music group allows inmates learn an instrument, one way to identify and express emotions in a socially-appropriate way.

There’s mentoring, pairing longer-term prisoners with the newly arrived, many of whom lack basic education skills.

“We have excellent education programs from Walla Walla Community College here, but those teachers can’t run special ed classrooms,” Russell said. “Some of our offenders, their skills are down at elementary level. That means a harder time getting jobs when they release.”

Using prisoners with good reading and math ability as tutors saves money and time in preparing a student to tackle getting a GED certificate, she added.

The crochet class is one of her favorites. It’s not a clinical group, but definitely medicine for the soul, Russell noted. It began with an offender who wanted to crochet caps and mittens for a homeless shelter in Spokane, where winter can be bitterly cold.

“But we didn’t have money for yarn,” she recalled. “So we found examples of things crocheted out of plastic grocery bags. And, you know, grocery bags are free, the staff brings them in. So they cut those up and we make bath mats for people at the mission. We’re starting bags and baskets, too.”

The positives that come from giving back to the community equals anything medicine can provide, the psychologist said.

“We know that reduces anxiety and depression. With repetitive fine motor skills, we know from research that kind of movement helps people calm down and focus. And that working together promotes cohesion with each other, that sense of group.”

The crochet hooks, she added, are counted upon return.

For many of Russell’s clients, the prison programs are a first opportunity at personal success, Hall said. “Even something as simple as, say, the kittens. One guy told me, ‘For the first time, I had to be responsible for something.’”

While it is difficult to measure the clinical effectiveness of fuzzy kittens and abundant marigolds, some data speaks to Russell’s success. Medication compliance is up among her clients, for starters, as well as insight.

“We do a quarterly survey that looks at their readiness to change and we find they are on track for making those changes. And we know our offenders are transitioning out of Washington State Penitentiary and going into intensive transition programs and they are being successful,” she said. “It used to be that we sent them out and they bounced right back in.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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