For many individuals reentering the community after incarceration, life is uncertain and chaotic. Accessing healthcare benefits, making and keeping doctor appointments, and keeping up with medication may not be a priority. For those with chronic medical conditions, this could mean the difference between a successful life and one consumed by health complications, hospitalization, or worse.
At The Fortune Society, our Health Services program works to connect individuals with the care they need. At the Drop-in-Center located in our housing development Castle Gardens in West Harlem, we take a holistic approach to providing necessary support. Compassionate case managers assist our participants from pre-release through their transition into the community and work to remove barriers that may prevent continued treatment. The program serves individuals released from New York City jails—Rikers Island, Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC), Manhattan Detention Center (MDC), and Brooklyn Detention Center—and is currently expanding in scope.
Nilda Ricard, the Director of the Drop-in-Center, has spent the past 11 years growing and developing this program. In the latest issue of The Fortune News, she shared her experience in this vital role. Read her thoughts below:
About five years ago on a cold winter morning, I received a panicked phone call from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene at Rikers Island. The night before at 2 a.m., Rikers had released a man who had an AIDS diagnosis and was in the end stages of liver cancer. He had no warm clothing and no place to go. At that late hour, he found the strength to travel to one of the few places he knew: Lutheran Hospital in Brooklyn. With limited English proficiency, he struggled to tell his story to nurses and staff at the hospital.
As soon as I heard this news, my staff and I sprung into action.
Our model differs from traditional case management programs in a number of ways. There is a strong focus on building individual relationships––each participant is assigned a Transitional Specialist while still incarcerated, and that same staff member continues to assist post-release. This is important––by building a rapport with the participants while they are inside, we increase the ability to provide support through their transition. Additionally, our program takes a holistic look at the issues faced by our participants and aims to remove any barriers that are preventing healthcare access.
Our dedicated team of caring Transitional Specialists and Peer Health Navigators work to place our participants in housing, help them apply for benefits, provide transportation, accompany them to medical appointments as advocates, and provide hands-on guidance to ensure that they continue their treatment.
As participant needs have shifted in recent years, we are also broadening the Drop-In-Center’s focus to better serve the community. Since its inception, the Drop-In-Center has served individuals living with HIV/AIDS, but as medical advances have reduced HIV infections and AIDS diagnoses, we are now evolving to offer services to other underserved groups as well. We recently received funding from the OneCity Health Innovation Fund to serve individuals with chronic health conditions and substance use needs. The new project, Connections to Care, will provide adults with opioid use histories with primary care and support services. We are excited to begin connecting this group with the health care they need and deserve.
While the criminal justice landscape will shift and change, there will continue to be individuals that need assistance navigating the healthcare system. And as long as that’s happening, we’ll be here.
For more information on our vital services, read our latest edition of The Fortune News. Want to learn more about Health Services? On our blog, read firsthand accounts about our participants’ journeys to health and wellness.
*Written by Nilda Ricard, Director of the Drop-in-Center at The Fortune Society, with Carmen Rojas, Development and Communications Associate at The Fortune Society