By Jesse Ayers, Contributing Writer
A team of mental health professionals in San Quentin’s H-Unit worked tirelessly during the pandemic to maintain the health and safety of the men in the Enhanced Out Patient (EOP) program.
H-Unit houses 100 Enhanced Out Patients (EOPs). EOP is a term that describes a level of mental health treatment. One of the tools the program utilizes is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in which patients interact with each other and a facilitator to address trauma and related mental health issues.
Dr. Koblinski, known as “Dr. K,” discussed what it was like providing these services during the long lockdown.
Dr. K said, “[The work] … is dealing with a lot of past trauma which resurfaces when the patient is triggered. … It takes lots of therapy, over time, to heal from all of these past wounds … Like many surgeries to remove a bunch of cancer.”
JA: What was it like for your staff when the pandemic hit?
Dr. K: “We were pretty much in survival mode, thinking ‘We just need to get through this.’ I think we were in denial, not thinking that the virus would really affect us, at least not here in San Quentin, and then … When it did … It was like ‘I need to stay safe (out there) to keep my patients safe (in here)’ because everybody else was working from home.”
JA: What does a “normal” day look like compared to a day during the pandemic?
Dr. K: “We normally have several different group topics running throughout the day and mixing dorms One and Two (the EOP Dorms), but in order to prevent the spread of COVID, we started running what we call “cohort” groups, where we no longer mixed the two dorms. Patients went to the same group, with the same peers, at the same time. … During the summer when the numbers of positive tests for COVID rose in Facility A [H-Unit is Facility B], we brought the groups outside to decrease the chances of spreading the virus with the increased social distancing while still giving the patients a chance at group therapy.”
JA: What was it like for you personally?
Dr. K: “Keeping myself healthy, so that I can keep coming into work and providing group and individual therapy for the patient population was and continues to be, so important to me. I was very strict about always wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, and sheltering in place on my days off so that I could continue to be there for my patients.”
JA: What were some of the obstacles you faced?
Dr. K: “It was the times when we felt we were most limited in providing therapy that our team saw we needed to use our creativity.”
JA: Would you care to elaborate?
Dr. K: “We realized that sometimes it was the smallest things that made the most difference.”
JA: Give me an example.
Dr. K: “Whether it was bringing a TV into the dorms to show movies for the patients, creating a group mandala, working closely with the California Re-Entry Program to provide the best possible pre-release plans, playing some of the patients’ favorite songs, or just continuing to provide them with the humanity; every little thing we did during this time was necessary and made a difference.”
JA: I know a lot of guys who wanted to be EOP during the pandemic, just to be able to have a group, get therapy, and earn early release credits. I think they had CBT envy. (Dr. K and I share a laugh)
Dr. K: “I felt bad for the other dorms that didn’t have this opportunity. I did notice that through the stress and frustration of the patients; worrying about their families or patients who were preparing for early release, not knowing what was to be expected; the ability to maintain groups and weekly contact with these individuals absolutely helped maintain some sense of normalcy. The patients saw that we were continuing to come in and they were grateful for our dedication, even though we were possibly putting ourselves in danger by coming in here. We knew how important it was for them to see us, and for us to be there for them.”
Incarcerated person Derry “Brutha D” Brown discussed his experience in EOP during the pandemic.
JA: What was a highlight for you being in the EOP program during the pandemic lockdown?
DB: “Although I suffered with mental issues during the COVID lockdown, I chose to stay away from seeking help from the mental health department within CDCR due to prior experience. … However, as a result of a fight I had while being socially distanced in the gym, I was placed in the … EOP level of care.
“After being placed in a treatment [group,] I braced myself as I awaited my past CDCR mental health trauma to resurface in my present moment. However, I was shocked to see that the doctor whose caseload they placed me on actually cared about me as a patient and a human being.”
JA: Who was that?
DB: “Dr. Kolbinski and I jumped right into my treatment goal of me ‘gaining focus.’ We not only shared groups together, she and I also shared one-to-one visits, once a week, via Zoom due to the COVID pandemic.”
JA: What convinced you to trust Dr. K after all of your past experiences with the mental health department?
DB: “What really convinced me of her being a restorative, vigilant, caring doctor was when she nominated me for something they call patient of the month. Here it is, this vigilant doctor is noticing something in me that I didn’t notice about myself.”
Here (on certificate) Dr. K states: “Mr. Brown, since you have been part of the EOP program in H-Unit, you have attended almost every single group and yard session. You participate on a regular basis. You are respectful to staff and peers and add a lot of positivity and creative ideas to the group setting. You are cheerful and always try to find the positive in difficult situations. You stand up for what you believe in and are focused on creating a better future for everyone around you. The EOP team has enjoyed working with you and we are grateful to have your positive energy in this space.”
DB: “Therefore, one of the highlights of my COVID lockdown experiences was meeting Dr. Kolbinski, a heartfelt front-liner who not only respects staff but respects the incarcerated population and her patients, with the same stroke of love. Moreover, let’s see if this one doctor’s ability to love and care for humanity would autonomously spread throughout the CDCR mental health department in these present times.”
JA: How did that make you feel?
DB: “It made me feel accepted.”