Long Beach’s jail clinician program provides help for repeat offenders

Born and raised in a gang-ridden neighborhood in East Los Angeles, Ernesto Portillo has cycled in and out of jails most of his life as he battles alcoholism.

He said he was at low point last year when he was booked into the Long Beach Jail for violating a restraining order, but a new mental health program in the jail gave him hope.

Funded through the city’s Justice Lab initiative, the Long Beach Police Department last year began offering a “Clinician in Jail” program providing specialized mental health counseling with the goal of breaking the cycle of incarceration.

Under the program, mental health professional Melissa Mojica meets with inmates within their first hours in custody to assess their needs and connect them to services. While many jails have mental health services, Long Beach’s program is unique in that it provides an in-house clinician who’s available to help from the time of booking and throughout a person’s time in custody.

The program, which is a partnership with The Guidance Center, provides an added layer of support for the police department’s mental health evaluation team, which is predominantly out in the field providing services.

Jail Division Commander Donald Mauk said the department requested the extra mental health support in the hope that it can help break the cycles for some repeat offenders. The program launched in 2018 as a pilot program and now has additional funding for the 2020 fiscal year.

“We realize the challenges we’re facing—are we going to keep arresting these people and then they’re out in a month, or are we really going to try to find the root of the problem?” Mauk said. “It’s a continuous cycle, and we’re going to do everything within our power to get people the help if they want it.”

With the help, Portillo, 48, has so far been able to break his cycle. On Nov. 1, he celebrated one year of sobriety, his longest stretch in more than two decades, he said.

After he was incarcerated last year, Portillo began meeting with Mojica for weekly therapy sessions and he said his views began to change.

“You come in and you’re looking for a glimmer of hope or just some kind of light,” he said. “And the way she spoke to me, it gave me hope to get through the day and I started thinking I could make it out of here with some kind of productivity.”

Mojica said she was allowed extra time to build a relationship with Portillo. Their counseling sessions often lasted more than an hour and Mojica was able to help him with a post-release plan. After he was released in May, Mojica asked that he send her a daily text message noting one thing he was grateful for that day.

Portillo is now living in Long Beach and is focused on helping his 17-year-old son, who wants to become a professional boxer.

“This time feels different because I’m growing emotionally and I’m actually learning things,” he said. “Being sober, everything is falling into place.”

Mojica said she’s focused on building relationships with her clients, helping them go inwards to find the tools they need to support themselves.

“It’s all about human-to-human connection and compassion,” she said.

The program works alongside other city programs to support mental health, including the city’s Mental Evaluation Quality of Life Team and other programs in the Justice Lab initiative, which launched last year.

“I’m just one part of a huge shift that’s happening here in the city,” she said.

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].