Amelia Lawless Goes to Prison

I was reminded recently by my mom that when I was six or seven years old she found me creating and crafting a new project.  It was a Saturday morning and most kids were likely watching cartoons, enjoying sugar-sweetened cereal and maybe coloring.  I was constructing a jail/hospital for my beloved plastic lizard collection.  She should have been very worried for the years to come!

Fast forward some years and here I am at Valley Vision working as a Project Manager on the 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) and the Mental Health Improvement Coalition with a wonderful team of talented, intelligent, and compassionate staff.  Although both the CHNA and Mental Health project work had unique facets and challenges, the opportunity to do this work was an honor to be a part of.  I have greatly enjoyed this work and it has solidified my passion for the fields of public health and social work.

A few months ago my husband was recruited for a position at Marin General Hospital and although we love the Sacramento area and both had established careers, family, and social networks here, we felt this professional development opportunity was too great to pass up.  We packed our home and moved to San Rafael with our three dogs in tow.  Around this time, I was hired with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to become a Clinical Social Worker at San Quentin State Prison.  The decision to accept this position was greatly informed by the work that I had the opportunity of being a part of at Valley Vision through the Community Health Needs Assessment and Mental Health Improvement Coalition.  The macro and community level work that were a part of both of these projects further inspired and encouraged me that my clinical skills were needed in community settings.

In this new role I will be providing direct practice therapy to inmates who are in the process of paroling and later I expect to work on death row.  I am very much looking forward to this, as a large part of my theoretical framework considers the community and systemic impacts on individuals’ behaviors and orientation to the world.  Such complex traumas and issues lead hurt people to hurt other people.  I anticipate making individual connections and hopefully creating some rehabilitation and recovery.  The Valley Vision Mental Health Project has greatly informed my interest in this position as County mental health systems are a large part of reintegrating folks back into society.

I know that many inmates have severe mental health issues and while we know that personal responsibility for crimes is important, we also know that the consideration of complicated childhood and lifetime trauma (homelessness, physical abuse, sexual abuse, foster home involvement, substance use issues at home, having an incarcerated parent(s), individual substance use issues) may act as catalysts for certain crimes.  I’m excited and honored to advocate and provide direct practice mental health treatment to inmates in efforts to better the health of individuals, communities, and ultimately the State of California.

These insights would not have been possible without my experience at Valley Vision.  Under the direction of Bill Mueller and from many wonderful mentors at Valley Vision, I have learned more than I ever expected and look forward to taking these lessons into the next phase of my life in forensic social work.  And maybe I’ll need to look through my parent’s basement to find some of those plastic lizards.  I think they may come in handy.


Amelia Lawless has been a Valley Vision employee for nearly a year, leading and contributing to the 2016 Community Health Needs Assessments and Mental Health Improvement Coalition.

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Category: Miscellaneous

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