In Maricopa County, some jail inmates now are eligible for Medicaid after their release

James Schmitz sits with his fellow inmates in a Durango Jail classroom where the subject of today’s lesson is consequences.

He and others are taking a course called Thinking 4 A Change as part of a curriculum offered to inmates throughout Maricopa County’s jails. The 16-week ALPHA program has been used in the jail system for 20 years, primarily to tackle drug and alcohol abuse among inmates.

But today, something is different.

Inmates who complete the program now are eligible to receive medical coverage after their release through Arizona’s Medicaid program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS.

“We have found that individuals who are in jail are very high risk, very high need, many of them are suffering from physical ailments, mental health issues, substance use issues,” said Maricopa County’s Health Services Integration Administrator Jennifer Hawkins. “And when they leave jail, they will really benefit from having health care benefits when they get out.”

Schmitz, who has been in and out of jail for using and dealing meth, said medical coverage could be the key to keeping him clean.

“With the medical coverage, not only does that help, but, you know, it sets a standard to where if anything goes wrong medically or even mentally, I have that benefit,” he said. “I can go out and get a doctor’s appointment … or if I am having problems with relapsing I can use that medical benefit to get counseling.”

Schmitz graduates from the ALPHA program May 4 and is supposed to be released five days later.

“I really believe that I am done with this,” he said. “I am going to be 33-years-old this year and I cannot do this no more.”

After his release, he plans to get a degree in sports medicine and nutrition.

Nancy Longtin, supervisor of the ALPHA program, called the access to medical coverage “smart justice.”

“They can walk out of jail and have their medical access, their food stamps, all of that immediately. You know, it’s huge because they are walking out with nothing,” said Longtin.

Hawkins said that once individuals are released from jail, they already face multiple issues that can interfere with their success.

“When an individual leaves jail and especially if they’ve been incarcerated for several months, maybe one of the last things on their list of priorities is to get enrolled in health care,” she said.

“They are looking at reuniting with family, finding employment, finding housing and those who are dealing with substance abuse issues are looking at how to stay clean and sober back in the community,” Hawkins added.

Two classes of ALPHA graduates have gone through the pre-release Medicaid application process, 55 men from Durango jail and 40 women from the Estrella jail.

Longtin said the program is working. Those who don’t participate in the ALPHA program have about a 77 percent recidivism rate. But for those inmates who do take part in ALPHA, it goes “down to about 39 percent,” she said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained a statement involving the revocation of medical coverage for inmates who violate probation. That sentence was inaccurate and has been removed.