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Rehab program gives purpose instead of prison

ST. PETERSBURG | The alarm goes off and Leon Adams pries his eyes open. It's 4:30 a.m. Time for another day of work.
The world outside stays still and dark, save the full moon that shines down on the St. Petersburg rehab center he has called home for the past seven months.
The words "faith" and "believe" frame the front door that Adams steps out of 15 minutes later. He hitches a ride to the Williams Park bus stop, where he catches the No. 59 to work at a computer cable company on Gandy Boulevard.
Adams will twist and solder computer cables all day until his fingers are calloused and sore. He doesn't mind. It's the first legitimate job he's had in his 27 years.
He's a long way from the days when a psychotic break sent him spiraling into madness. It felt like someone was pulling his mind apart like a piece of string cheese. He eventually landed back in jail, writing poems to stay sane.
A Pinellas County program for inmates with mental illnesses helped pull Adams out of the abyss. It has kept him out of jail, and, at least for now, kept the delusions away.
It also has given Adams hope, something he hasn't felt for a long time.
Adams will never forget the day in 2005 that his mind betrayed him. The devil was there, taunting him in the sky, laughing at him, making him hear voices.

He had spent most of his childhood bouncing between homes, while his mother struggled with cocaine addiction. His father was never around. The places he called home often had no running water or electricity. Classmates made fun of him for wearing the same outfits for weeks on end.

He broke into his first house when he was 14. While the other kid rummaged through the house for valuables, Adams went straight to the fridge.

"I remember exactly what I took," he says, in his quiet voice. "Cereal, milk and juice."

In 1995, Adams started selling drugs. Weed and crack rocks made for better money than snatching purses. The following year, he was arrested for burglary. Then for stealing a car, later for battery, and in 2000, for armed robbery of a Clearwater convenience store.

The whole time, Adams thought of himself as a good person. He said he was doing what he had to do to get by.

"I had to eat," he says. "I had to put dough in my pocket."

In prison, serving more than five years for robbery, his mind began playing tricks on him. He started hearing voices. Sometimes they told him to kill people. After his release, he felt like his head was full of air.

On the day after Christmas in 2005, Adams, 25 at the time, remembers standing on Garden Avenue when he felt something rush into his body. It was the devil, who had been dancing in the sky above him moments before. Then his mind shifted. Maybe it was Jesus or God.

The feeling carried him from his mother's home near Belleair to the front door of a friend several miles away in Clearwater. On the way he saw a dog with three heads. Cats multiplied in front of his eyes.

When the front door opened, Adams says he remembers feeling something knock him to the ground. Then the yard sprinklers came on. To his friend, Adams seemed possessed.

He took off all his clothes and danced around in the water. It was time to get baptized. Soon, the police came. Adams remembers telling one officer that the other was sleeping with his wife. He told the other that their cruiser was going to blow up.

Adams ran across the yard naked, with the officers coming at him with their nightsticks. He punched one of them and pushed the other. They Tasered him. The electricity sizzled around him as he laughed. Didn't they know the world was coming to an end?

Adams ended up in the Pinellas County Jail charged with eight felony and misdemeanor counts. Staff in the jail gave him prescription drugs like Clonidine and Thorazine that made him feel numb. With his Bible in hand, he warned the other inmates about the devil. He slept on an air mattress in the same room where they ate and watched TV, because there wasn't enough space in the cells.

He would stay in jail for more than five months, sometimes strapped down when he was more than guards could handle.

He was diagnosed as a bipolar schizophrenic.

• • •

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger started the Diversion Program in 2004, after noticing the increase in offenders recycling through the court system who had a mental illness, a drug addiction, or sometimes both.

A longtime mental health advocate, whose own daughter died from suicide two years ago, Dillinger knew there had to be a way to help inmates, rather than keep them locked up in already crowded jails.

With the blessing of the state attorney, the sheriff, judges and local service providers, he created the Tampa Bay area's first diversion program for people with mental illnesses.

It includes in-house counselors, a psychiatrist and 12 treatment providers that house, transport and treat clients with mental illnesses. At less than half the cost of the $90 a day it takes to keep a person in jail, the program focuses on helping to make clients whole and productive.

"I think people are finally starting to understand that mental illnesses are really illnesses and not some fakery," Dillinger said.

That first year, with a $990,000 federal grant, the program helped 432 clients. What's more, the program saved the county $5.7-million in jail costs, according to Dillinger's office.

Since then, 2,577 people in Pinellas and Pasco counties have come through the diversion program, with about 85 percent successfully completing their court-ordered treatment and staying out of jail. It operates on a mix of county and state funds, and federal grants.

Folded into Dillinger's office, the program is headed by director Duncan McCormack, a 51-year-old with a diverse background that includes mental health counseling. He has graying hair and a quick pace.

On a typical day, McCormack ducks in and out of courtrooms advocating for the mentally ill.

He found Adams in July.

After his naked run-in with police, Adams had spent five months in jail waiting for his relatives to save enough money to post his bail. A few months later, while the delusions continued, he was locked up again for domestic battery. Days after he was bailed out again, he wound up back in a cell for sleeping in an abandoned house with crack in his pocket.

In the meantime, Adams fathered his son, Jeremiah.

McCormack convinced a judge that Adams was worth saving. After that, all that stood between Adams and a return to jail was one of Dillinger's treatment providers: Our Brother's Keeper.

• • •

The browns and blacks of a cheetah print adorn the floors and furniture in the part of the Brother's Keeper complex where Adams lives. Carved wooden masks hang all over the home. Concrete lions guard both sides of big screen televisions. Books with titles like Africa: The Mighty Continent are neatly placed at tables with bowls of fruit. An all black version of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper hangs in one room. And always in the background, is the strong, steady flow of water from an indoor fountain.

"What the hell is this," Adams thought when he arrived. "I'm here? You got to be kidding me."

Adams came with a supply of Risperdal and Trazodone. He hardly smiled. He never looked anyone in the eye. He had no reason to think about the future or to have hope.

His old vices were right outside his new front door on 12th Street S. He remembered a friend he had in the neighborhood. He thought about how and where he could sell drugs for some quick cash. He thought about the girls he could get and how lucky he was to avoid jail.

Brother Kiambu Mudada formed Our Brother's Keeper after starting a halfway house 15 years ago. Made up of two homes a few streets apart in St. Petersburg, it became affiliated with Dillinger's diversion program in 2005. The program operates on the seven principles of Kwanzaa, including unity, self-determination and purpose.

"We know how they think," says Mudada, a former drug addict. "They might be thinking that they're going to pull one over on me, but I already know. I been there and done that."

Like the others who arrive at Our Brother's Keeper, Adams wasn't allowed to talk on the phone or have visitors for the first 30 days of the program. Mudada made him wear pants that fit, rather than ones that sagged and revealed his underwear.

On Mudada's order, he also walked around the neighborhood picking up trash at least once a week. He often got in trouble for looking over the fence at crowds that gathered on the corner across the street. Adams watched them listen to rap music from their cars and sip on beverages concealed in wrinkled paper bags.

"I'd find Leon out there all the time, hanging on that fence and looking over," Mudada said. "Then he'd see me and slither down from there like a worm."

Less than two months later, Adams got his GED. Then he got the soldering job — his first real employment. The day he got his identification badge, he showed it off to everyone in the house.

Adams was happy with his progress and wanted to continue with the program.

But it was up to a judge to decide his fate.

• • •

Adams walked into the courtroom, flanked by his support team, McCormack and Mudada. He stood tall in his black suit, looking Pinellas Judge Pamela Campbell in the eye.

Campbell had many concerns. She took in a deep breath as McCormack adjusted his tie. Mudada explained to the judge that in the past six months, Adams had received one-on-one therapy with a psychologist, group therapy, his GED, and a job.

"He's even stopped taking his medications," Mudada said.

Campbell raised an eyebrow.

"He's progressing very well," Mudada continued. "We're looking at getting him a scholarship for further education."

The judge asked Adams to come forward. He stepped up to the lectern, his hands folded in front of him.

"Mr. Adams, how's it going?" she asked.

"It's going great," he said.

Campbell asked about his medications. Many bipolar schizophrenics take medication for the rest of their lives. A few months ago, with the approval of the diversion program psychiatrist, Adams stopped taking them.

The judge gave Adams another skeptical look.

She emphasized that if he starts to feel strange again or have delusions, he needs to contact a doctor. He also knows that he might need to go back on the medications.

Campbell asked if he had been feeling confused or having hallucinations.

"No, I'm not confused, ma'am," he said. "I have direction now."

The judge nodded her head and allowed him to continue with the program.

• • •

A week later outside Our Brother's Keeper, the thud of a bass beat from a car stereo shakes the night. A crowd has gathered on the corner.

Inside, Adams sits with the other men talking about what motivates them to stay away from that corner or the many like it. He doesn't crave the clutter of his past life. He has learned that structure can help keep him straight.

"I'm Leon, I'm 27," Adams tells the other men. "What motivates me is my son and my family. Lot of y'all and Mr. Kiambu definitely motivates me to go to work and do what I do.

"My goal is to be a better man, so I got to stay motivated and not fall into my past. Everyday there's different obstacles and issues, the devil or whatever you want to call it."

Adams has worked his way up to the second level in the program, with the fourth being graduation. He will complete the program in July.

Later on after the group wrap-up, Mudada sits in the lounge with the young men. In between drags of cigarettes, they talk.

Mudada believes that Adams will make it. But he knows some residents can't resist their pasts and end up back in jail.

"Every day we see those kids across the street standing there," Mudada says. "And what are they doing? Drugs and crime are only symptoms. That means you're really detached from your family, your community."

Leo Llana, a 23-year-old housemate, asks Mudada why it seems they have so little chance to do good, even though they're all trying to change. Like Adams, Llana has a past riddled with drugs, arrests, and a mental illness.

"You've got to take your chances," Mudada says. "You can't just get in the boat and sit there. You've got to row."

Adams smiles at what he hears. He stands up and begins pacing with his cigarette. On the wall behind him is an African proverb, "He who upsets a thing should know how to rearrange it."

He tells Mudada that he's due for a raise at work and might get to move up a spot at the company. Weeks before, he wanted to quit.

"See, what did I tell you?" Mudada asks. "Patience and tolerance. See, you get up everyday and go, even though you don't want to a lot of times."

Adams knows he can't fall anymore. He has too many plans — raise his son with his child's mother, become a counselor and live the life he never used to think he could have.

"I'm on a mission," he says. "Everyone is hoping that I just do good, that I don't get in trouble, and that I don't go crazy, again."

Adams has long since stopped wondering if he's going to make it. Tomorrow will be another day, another early rise to head to work.

And tomorrow there will be hope.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at
cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

>>fast facts

Treatment of inmates

In 2006, Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and other officials pushed for the state Department of Children and Families to address the plight of inmates with mental illnesses stuck in jail without treatment. The agency said it had a shortage of beds and didn't have money for more.

The same year, Pinellas Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell threatened to fine and even jail then-DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi for not getting inmates with mental illnesses into treatment beds within the 15 days required by law. Hillsborough County also sued DCF to follow the law.

The Legislative Budget Commission then called a special meeting and allocated nearly $17-million to create more beds and $48-million annually to cover the costs. That's when the state Supreme Court directed a mental health subcommittee to study the issue and seek solutions.

According to the November 2007 report, roughly 125,000 people with serious mental illnesses are booked into Florida jails annually. On any given day, there are about 16,000 prison inmates, 15,000 local jail detainees, and 40,000 individuals under community correctional supervision who have serious mental illnesses.

The report also estimates that the state spends $250-million a year on 1,700 beds for prison inmates with mental illnesses. At this rate, the state will be spending $500-million a year by 2015.

Rehab program gives purpose instead of prison 05/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:38am]

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