The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) is investing $5.5 million into a program called “FIT Wellness,” which is part of the state’s  “Formerly Incarcerated Transition” program in the UNC School of Medicine.

That large sum of money is meant to improve reentry services for people who’ve had run ins with the law or been incarcerated, those the state gingerly refers to as “the justice-involved population.”

 FIT Wellness delivers psychiatric care and physical health care and also provides connections to community support like housing, transportation and phone access for people in the state prison system who have serious mental illness, which state officials say affects about 15 percent of men and 31 percent of women in prisons and jails.

Over the last several years, NCDHHS funding has created or expanded nearly two dozen diversion programs for substance use and 29 community-led reentry programs for substance abuse delivered by a range of agencies.

Guilford County, as well, in recent years, has been putting a lot of effort into dealing with these issues and helping former inmates integrate into society upon release.

The Monday, Feb. 12 announcement from the state notes, “As part of its historic $835 million investment to transform behavioral health, the 2023-2025 state budget invests $99 million to support people who are involved in the justice system by increasing services related to reentry, diversion and capacity restoration for people who interact with the justice system. The department’s investment aligns with Governor Cooper’s recently announced Executive Order No. 303, which provides for a whole-of-government approach to improving reentry for formerly incarcerated people in North Carolina.”

NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley said this week that the new money should make a difference in short order.

“We are moving quickly to make the most of our new investments and get people the behavioral health care they need and deserve,” Kinsley said. “By partnering with UNC School of Medicine and proven programs like NC FIT, we make an immediate difference because we are investing in care that we know works.”

FIT Wellness offers continued psychiatric care for people with mental issues who are being released from state prison. Participants in the program work with a peer support specialist and other team members who help develop a comprehensive reentry plan for each participant’s physical and behavioral health care needs.

There’s a reason these newly released inmates are getting special attention: Compared to the general population, “people reentering society after incarceration are 50 times more likely to die from an overdose during the first two weeks post-release.”

 However, with good behavioral health care, as well as with connections to community support systems, 75 percent of FIT Wellness participants have had no emergency department visit within three months of release, and 81 percent have had no hospital visit at all.