Community Profile: Jacob Parker Carver

Jacob Parker Carver is the Community Educator at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. A typical week puts him at the Tompkins County Public Library where he gives trainings in Mental Health First Aid, or on the Cornell University campus where he recently gave a talk at a mental health awareness event. Parker Carver’s job also takes him to a place that most of us would prefer to avoid: the Tompkins County Jail.

jacobparkercarver  Jacob Parker Carver

Parker Carver along with other colleagues runs two regular mental health programs at the 82-inmate institution, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), and a less formal program he just calls Talk. As Parker Carver sees it, mental health support is critical to giving prisoners a better chance in life once they are released. The county jail’s WRAP program began in April 2016 after Tompkins County Corrections Division Supervisor Captain Raymond Bunce recognized that prisoners needed more mental health services and the Mental Health Association reached out with help.

The idea behind WRAP, Parker Carver explained in an interview with The Sophie Fund, is self-help training—“teaching people how to identify the things that give them strength, that make them healthy, that keep them healthy.” It sounds straightforward enough, yet Parker Carver found it tough going at first. Much like the challenges that mental health providers face with the regular population, getting inmates to overcome the stigma around mental illness and treatment is no easy matter.

“We realized that we were not getting access to everybody in the jail who could use the service, partially because of the stigma around mental health,” Parker Carver recalls. “Especially within the jail, if you identify as having a mental health issue, that makes you a target. Behind those bars you’re easier to take advantage of if you have a mental health problem. So people don’t necessarily want to sign up for that. When someone is in that seat in front of me, they really want to be a part of that group.”

To get around the stigma and create a different environment for inmates turned off by a formal wellness and recovery program, the Mental Health Association began offering Talk, a less structured group session. In an ideal world all the inmates would take advantage of this support, but Parker Carver has found that often times it’s the same group of people. Giving prisoners the space to express themselves, Parker Carver says, is not as easy as it sounds. While they are very appreciative to have someone who cares about how they feel, it is hard for them to escape the norms imposed by the criminal justice system.

“They’ve talked to correctional officers or probation officers, or some of them have drug and alcohol counselors,” Parker Carver explains. “They’re part of the system and that means they’re used to having to tell something from a script, having to jump through hoops, having to say the right thing to make sure that their kids don’t get taken away from them or that they don’t have to get sent to rehab or this that or the other thing. So they’re very used to having to figure out what people want to hear and then saying that back to them.”

Parker Carver’s methods enable some inmates to open up with surprising candor. “Someone who would tell their drug counselor that they want to get clean might tell me ‘As soon as I get out of this cell and get to go home I just need to go find crack because I can’t think of anything else that’s going to make being alive okay,’” he says. “That’s a hard thing to hear. But you’re not really able to help anyone unless you’re hearing the truth of what they’re going through.”

As Parker Carver explains it, WRAP and Talk also help inmates cope with the immense stresses of their incarceration. “Not everyone in jail is happy and holding hands and ready to get along,” he says. “You’ve got two people who are locked up and there’s no reason for them to hate each other. If anything, because they’re in the same difficult situation they should be supporting each other. But they’re both stressed, anxious, afraid, and on high alert—always in that ‘fight or flight’ situation. They can’t focus their anger in any place productive so they take it out on each other. That’s definitely sad to see.”

In jail cells, traditional coping mechanisms don’t apply. “When you’re in jail I can’t tell you to listen to music,” Parker Carver says. “I can’t tell you to take a yoga class. You’re stuck in this place so you’re limited to coping mechanisms that you can use in a small space, with very limited resources.”

That’s where the Mental Health Association comes in. WRAP trains inmates to understand the little things people can do in each day to try to take control of their mental health and communicate to other people about their needs. Parker Carver says it also teaches inmates how to be mindful of triggers—“the things that set us off, the things that are going to make it harder for us to stay in control.”

Parker Carver, 30, is a 2008 graduate of Ithaca College, where he studied cinema production. He spent four years teaching English in Shanghai before returning to Ithaca. He joined the Mental Health Association initially as its Youth Services Coordinator, before taking up his current position in 2015. He is mindful that after listening to the stories of pain and suffering in the county jail he needs to take care of his own mental health. Explains Parker Carver: “I spend a lot of time building little things into my day, into my life, that give me that energy, hope, and strength.”

—By S. Makai Andrews

S. Makai Andrews is co-president of Active Minds at Ithaca College, and a contributor to The Mighty