Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘Jail saved my life’: how counselors are working to prepare inmates for release

“All I know is I was in a very dark place,” Sam Luzius said, sitting on a couch in the community room of the YWCA building in downtown Rochester. Luzius had entered the Monroe County Correctional Facility as an inmate last year, feeling broken and defeated.

But she’s out now, and she credits the support of jail counselors for her survival. “Jail saved my life,” Luzius said.

When Luzius was released, “it was a 180-degree turnaround. I was a completely different person. I had a toolbox of skills.”

Sam Luzius counts herself as a Monroe County Correctional Facility success story. She lives now in the YWCA's supportive housing community in downtown Rochester.
Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
Sam Luzius counts herself as a Monroe County Correctional Facility success story. She lives now in the YWCA's supportive housing community in downtown Rochester.

Luzius, 26, spent a bit more than four months in the correctional facility last year.

Her starting point was a complete mental collapse, she said.

Luzius overdosed on opioids in December 2017. “I tried to kill myself,” she said. “And I almost succeeded. It took three shots of Narcan and CPR to revive me.”

Sponsor Message

Not long after that, still in the throes of addiction, Luzius got in trouble for stealing. She went to jail. 

And she met Frankie Sampson.

Sampson is one of a growing number of counselors employed by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to work with inmates at the jail. Luzius, now out of jail, is in recovery from addiction and working to regain custody of her son. She said that’s only possible because of the mental health and addiction recovery support she got in the correctional facility.

Sampson, a drug and alcohol counselor by training, is now working specifically with unsentenced women at the jail. “It’s a population that can really use some special support,” she said.

The term “unsentenced” covers a range of people at the jail. It runs from those who have recently been arrested and accused of a crime but haven’t yet seen a judge, to those who have been convicted of a crime but not yet received a sentence.

Dr. Tisha Smith, who is in charge of drug and alcoholism programming for the Monroe County Correctional Facility, explains her calendars to a reporter.
Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
Dr. Tisha Smith, who is in charge of drug and alcoholism programming for the Monroe County Correctional Facility, explains her calendars to a reporter.

“You need to understand that there’s a place you can go – even in jail – that you can go for recovery,” Sampson said. “We want to make sure that inmates are getting services and support they need before going back into the community.”

Sampson was one of two new counselors hired in April. Tisha Smith, Sampson’s boss, said more are on the way.

Smith oversees drug and alcohol programming for the sheriff’s office. She keeps a full schedule – too big to fit on one calendar – of activities and programs that she says are available to inmates. There’s morning meditation, yoga, veterans’ groups, counseling, art groups and vocational training, to name a few.

Emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment isn’t new in the Monroe County correctional system, Smith said, but the resources available to her are increasing substantially.

“We have grants; we have people asking us to come work with inmates; we have new staff,” she said.

One foundational aim of those packed calendars is to keep inmates busy, Smith said.

That’s no easy task in a jail, said Luzius. “We’re in there all. Day Long.”

Smith said the activities provide ways for inmates to pass their time in jail and help them prepare for life when they get out.

Smith and Sampson both said that preparation is especially important for unsentenced women. Those women, often held to social standards that expect them to be caretakers and household managers, suddenly find themselves cut off from the families and children they’re supposed to be supporting, the jail workers said.

Many have a substance abuse disorder or addiction, Smith said, though she noted that’s common across inmate populations.

Making things harder, said Sampson, is the unpredictability of the unsentenced women’s situation. “They could be out tomorrow,” she said. Or they could end up in drug court, or they could receive a sentence that keeps them incarcerated for years.

And whenever they get out of jail, “there’s going to be some angry people in their family,” Smith said. “Children are going to be resentful and have trauma. Spouses won’t be receptive. For unsentenced women in particular, there’s a lot of complicated issues.”

Smith said the counseling she’s prioritizing helps prepare unsentenced women for their release. She asks them to dig deep into their personalities and their pasts, and find triggers for dangerous behaviors.

Luzius went through that process with Sampson.

“It is not easy taking a close look at yourself,” Luzius said, “but the support makes it easier. … Without that, I can’t imagine there being any success stories.”

Despite the difficulty, Luzius said she is on her way to being a success story and is committed to recovery from addiction.

“Because of the work I did in jail, I was able to repair a lot of my relationships. I started going to rehab right away — they made sure in jail that I had an appointment the next week,” she said. “You don’t want to get out of jail and sit on your butt. You need to throw yourself into recovery. And that’s what I did, because I want it.”

Now, Luzius has an apartment in supportive living at the Rochester YWCA. Supportive living connects residents with social events and continued counseling and social services.

It’s a marked change from Luzius’s past. “I’m learning how to live again. I have never lived a normal life. I’ve never worked for my means. What I know is doing drugs, stealing, lying,” she said.

During an interview with WXXI News one morning in January, Luzius wore pajama pants and a sweatshirt. But she refused to let a reporter take her picture that day. “I’m not like this anymore,” she said. “I dress up every day. People make fun of me sometimes, but it’s important to me.”

Luzius said her change in attire reflects a change in attitude.

“It’s how I remind myself of this new life I have,” she said. “I’m grateful to be breathing.”

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.