February 15, 2019  

Current weather

Overcast, mist, light rain

Social Work Colloquium: Preparing Students for ‘Corrections and Mental Illness’

Main Content
Dr. Tim Rehner

Social work students at The University of Southern Mississippi face a growing challenge in their field: that the largest single providers of mental health care services in the country are now correctional systems.

“Corrections and Mental Illness” is a timely theme for the 25th annual School of Social Work Fall Colloquium, Friday, Nov. 3 on the Hattiesburg campus. Among the speakers are three USM social work students who themselves have served time in a correctional system.

“First-person accounts matter a lot for people understanding and believing an important issue,” says Tim Rehner, director of the School of Social work. “People who have been affected by the criminal system are all around us, and we don’t know it.

“If we know these people are among us, we are more likely to go and advocate to change policies that will make life more favorable to them when they are done paying whatever debt they have to society.”

Wes Johnson, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at USM, says the three largest psychiatric institutions in the nation are correctional facilities at Rikers Island Prison Complex in New York City, Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago and the Los Angeles County Jail. Johnson says approximately 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year around the country, and the economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than $100 billion each year.

Rehner points to reductions in state mental health services in Mississippi as a contributing factor in shifting the burden to correctional systems. “Social workers are in all those (systems), and there need to be more social workers to respond to the needs of corrections and communities.

“The colloquium will give students an awareness of the context of correctional systems. There is a lot of error that happens in those systems. We don’t want our students to be biased against those who happen to be in the system through no fault of their own.”

Approximately 150 USM social work students will be participating in the colloquium, and were required to read “Just Mercy,” a book by criminal justice reform advocate Bryan Stevenson that explores systemic and institutionalized legal injustices that have led to wrongful convictions. Stevenson spoke at the University Forum in October 2016.

“We were all so impressed with what Bryan is doing and the way he told his story, we thought it was appropriate for all our students to be exposed to some of his ideas and make the colloquium emphasize that,” Rehner says.

The program for this year’s colloquium features:

  • A short video that captures some of the stories featured in “Just Mercy,” and reaction to the book from two USM social work students, Casey Johnson and Yolanda Clark;
  • “The Criminalization of Mental Illness” by Dr. Johnson, the criminal justice professor
  • “Mental Health Services in Mississippi Prisons” by Elissa Johnson, a social worker and lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center;
  • “A Family Perspective” by Terri Coalter,” a social worker who earned her master’s of social work degree at Southern Miss;
  • And “Personal Encounters with the Corrections System” by USM students Sidney Smith, Leo Hawkins and Davina Vernon

The colloquium will run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Thad Cochran Center Ballrooms. The event is approved for four social work continuing education (CE) credits.

The event is open to the public, with online registration. The cost is $45 and includes lunch; there is no charge for students, but they must pay for their own lunch.

For more information or special accommodations, contact Barry Haywood at barry.haywood@usm.edu or 601.266.6218.