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Spotlight Iowa City: Providing alternatives for inmates of the jail

BY HOLLY HINES | APRIL 23, 2010 7:30 AM

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Jessica Peckover, 28, loves seeing inmates who struggle with mental illness have “aha” moments.

When these individuals realize they’ve learned to make healthy decisions, rather than turning to drugs, stealing, or antisocial behaviors, she said, she feels her job is rewarding.

“You can almost actually see the light bulbs go off,” said the coordinator of the Johnson County Jail Alternatives Program, amid artwork displaying upbeat slogans.

Team members in the program aim to reduce jail time for some inmates who struggle with mental-health problems by connecting them to therapeutic resources in the community, such as inpatient or outpatient treatment.

As a member of the program’s two-person team, Peckover, who has served in her position since 2008, screens inmates for mental health-related concerns and helps assess whether they’re eligible for the program. She also attends meetings to help collaborate clinical and correctional departments that handle decisions regarding the program.

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Peckover, a native of Monroe, Iowa, received an undergraduate degree in criminology at the University of Northern Iowa and earned a master’s in social work at California University in Sacramento.

She said that before she moved back to Iowa and discovered the Jail Alternatives position, she’d never heard of initiatives to help inmates with mental illness reduce jail sentences.

“Sign me up. This is absolutely what I want to do,” she said, recalling her initial thoughts.

Malinda Lamb, who started the Jail Alternatives program in 2005, was coordinator when Peckover joined the team.

Lamb, now the manager of clinical services for the 6th Judicial District of the Department of Correctional Services, said Peckover excels at bridging gaps between different agencies, helping everyone benefit.

Peckover is also good at advocating for inmates and treating them as individuals, while still holding them accountable for their actions, Lamb said.

“She was a staff member you could count on, on a regular basis,” she said.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he usually meets with Peckover on a weekly basis to discuss the status of the program.

Pulkrabek said Peckover is always bubbly and cheery, and if she’s had bad days, he could never tell.

“It’s easy for everyone to work with her,” he said.

Peckover said on some days she finds her job challenging, and she questions whether positive change is possible. She said on these days, she makes an effort to find balance and address her own self-care.

Save for a little claustrophobia sometimes in the jail, she said, she never feels nervous around the inmates.

Rather, she said, she enjoys working with them.

“They’re humans, and I think that they have the capacity for good and the capacity to do well in the community.”

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