‘It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle’

Dana Simas, Public Information Officer

Inside California Men’s Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo, three California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employees work with some of the most developmentally disabled and mentally ill inmate-patients inside CDCR. They also work with inmates involved in one of the department’s best rehabilitative programs, the Gold Coats.

Named for the gold smocks they wear to identify themselves, these inmates work with mental health professionals, Dr. Cheryl Steed, Chief Psychiatrist, Arlene Pereida, Recreational Therapist, and Marie Mohapp, Recreational Therapist, to demonstrate, assist, and encourage disabled inmates with daily tasks such as showering, getting dressed, cleaning their assigned cell, and participating in activities.

Gold Coats

A Gold Coat inmate shaves an inmate-patient.

Dr. Cheryl Steed, who has been with CDCR for four and half years, works with developmentally disabled (DD) inmates. Inmates identified as DD have cognitive impairments that influence their ability to function, such as inmates with brain injuries, stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Steed is the mental health care provider for inmates identified as some of the most developmentally disabled.

“It takes extra time and patience to help them try and communicate their ideas or issues,” Dr. Steed said. “The work requires taking a simplified approach, which is very individualized, to listen and identify little pieces of what the inmate is trying to communicate.”

To help these inmates, the Gold Coats are trained to guide DD inmates with as little intervention as possible by prompting inmates with the daily tasks. For example, they remind the DD inmates that it is time to get dressed and what items they need to put on.

“The Gold Coats are able to provide support and to even just be a friend to some of these impaired inmates,” Dr. Steed said. “It allows for a sense of civility and normalcy.”

Arlene Pereida, who has been with CDCR for five years, and Marie Mohapp, with CDCR for three and a half years, work with inmates assigned to the Activities of Daily Living (ADL) program.

Pereida, Mohapp, and the Gold Coats work with inmates who have been referred to the ADL program due to instability or problems performing daily tasks for various reasons. An example would be an inmate who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is afraid the food has been poisoned and needs encouragement and prompting to eat.

Dr. Steed, Pereida, and Mohapp screen the Gold Coat inmate applicants. They discuss each inmate’s behavior with his counselor, the Correctional Officers in the living unit where the inmate is housed, as well as the inmate’s peers and cellmate.

After Pereida and Mohapp arrive for work, they handle any issues that may have come up from the day or weekend before, such as an inmate requesting modifications to his medication. They get the inmates started for the day with showers and room cleanup.

This can be quite different from the seemingly simple and normal task as some of the inmates tend to hoard items such as dirty laundry or trash. Pereida, Mohapp, and the Gold Coats help encourage ADL inmates to make sure they’re living in a sanitary environment and maintain personal hygiene.

After the morning tasks, it’s time for recreational therapy which is provided in a therapeutic community which strongly encourages positive expression and inmate-patient participation. Activities such as bingo, basketball, bowling, or playing a musical instrument are included in the therapy.

Mohapp and Pereida facilitate the activities and the Gold Coats help demonstrate how to perform the activity and motivate the inmate-patients to participate. To help the Gold Coats encourage the inmates, the mental health treatment staff meets with the Gold Coats on a weekly basis to help provide insight and “tricks” to help prompt inmates who don’t want to participate or perform the task asked of them.

“We do see improvements in our patients,” Pereida said. “We try to allow them to have their own successes but as we work with them they are able to do more things on their own.”

One of the most difficult tasks is encouraging the inmate-patients to get their hair cut. If an inmate-patient gets his car cut, the Gold Coats are encouraged to compliment them on their new hairdo.  Encouragement can be more effective when received from a peer, Pereida and Mohapp said.

Some of the inmates in inmate patients are able to improve, move out of the program, and join the general population. But many in the DD program are unable to improve their condition and some may even deteriorate further, despite their treatment.

All three CDCR mental health professionals agreed, “It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

“If our program did not exist, the inmates we’re taking care of would likely have ended up in a crisis bed or a mental hospital,” Mohapp said. “We’re allowing these (inmate-patients) to still be independent and to have their dignity and freedom despite some limitations.”