On the table next to her bed,Mitzi Peterson ’90, P’17, ’20, keeps copies of the eighth and fourteenth amendments. Their age-old words have become part of our public consciousness: “cruel and unusual punishment,” “due process,” “equal protection under the laws.” In simple terms, punishments must be fair and the basic rights of citizens upheld. Her intention each morning, as she heads off to work at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, is to honor those mandates.
Early on, Mitzi found herself drawn to helping those who faced some of the toughest issues. The college psychology major volunteered with Vietnam veterans at a local V.A. hospital and then worked with kids involved in the criminal justice system. While pursuing her master’s in social work at Boston College, she had thought about focusing on geriatric care. Instead, much to the horror of her parents, she landed a job in forensics within the court system in Dedham, Mass., working with incarcerated sex offenders.
Looking back, “doing in-depth clinical work with these very dangerous men turned out to be the best training ground for me,” she says. “It was then that I first started to understand that for many people who have committed terrible crimes, personal trauma often proceeds those crimes.” As she heard their histories of sexual abuse, neglect, poverty, and mental illness, she understood, too, how sometimes “anger is far easier to feel than shame.”
In 2012, after staying home for several years with her three children, including two Winsor daughters, Mitzi returned to the field of mental health, this time in the prison system. In particular, she worked with men who had committed crimes while in prison, so dangerous they could not be in a room with other inmates. In individual therapy, she would work to build their trust, exploring the original issues that got them on such destructive paths in the first place.
After years in direct care, Mitzi realized that, in order to bring about long-term change, she needed to work on more of a system level. She wanted to focus on policy change that mattered for individuals in prison—populations most people in society would rather not ponder. She sought broader ways to make a difference, whether that meant authoring the gender non-conforming policy for incarcerated people who identify as gender dysphoric or writing a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) provision making that choice legally possible for inmates.
Today, as director of behavioral health, she works to establish a level of care for incarcerated men and women across the mental health continuum from initial assessment to residential treatment to community reintegration. Safeguarding the wellbeing of the seriously mentally ill, Mitzi has coordinated the ongoing development of specialized units to redirect individuals from restricted housing to a therapeutic sphere.
“Working in a giant system that doesn’t necessarily understand mental health is an enormous challenge,” she admits. It’s a system of 16 prisons, 6,500 employees, and nearly 9,500 inmates. Thirty-three percent of the population has been diagnosed with mental health issues.
“We want to make sure we are doing right for these people, providing them with the skills and services they need to succeed,” she says. “Recently,” she adds, “we were able to close two prisons, which is good progress.”
“We want our men and women to leave prison, if they can, better neighbors, better employees, and better members of their communities,” she reflects. “We want our facilities and our programs to reflect our best practices. That runs the gamut from initiating more effective suicide prevention measures to working with communities to fill gaps so that when people do leave prison, there are organizations to help them with substance abuse, mental illness, job training, and peer support, among other issues.”
Beyond the challenges of the work itself, she has also faced a challenge familiar to many Winsor alumnae through the years: being a woman in a largely male-dominated field. As Mitzi explains, “everyone makes mistakes, but if a woman makes a mistake, it tends to fan out unnecessarily.” That said, she feels lucky to work with a top-notch male commissioner and female deputy and assistant deputy commissioners. “We know our situation is unusual and we’re protective of each other. We take great pride in the positive changes we make,” she says.
She works in a world beyond the grasp of most people. “The truth is that we’re all one bad decision away from prison,” Mitzi says. “If a person with mental illness is competent to stand trial and found guilty, he’ll go to prison. But that doesn’t mean he is no longer mentally ill,” she says.
Nevertheless, she sees hope in the data. When prison officials move the severely mentally ill out of isolated cells and offer them behavioral health plans and programs, research shows, they see marked difference in symptoms and behavior. To Mitzi, “it’s only through an educated and empathetic correctional system that the mentally ill will successfully leave prison, reenter a community, and not reoffend.”
In addition to the two amendments she keeps by her bed, Mitzi also still owns a pocket version of the Bill of Rights from a class at Winsor. “It’s funny when I think about my work. The Department of Corrections is probably the most opposite atmosphere from Winsor. I mean, could the two places be any more different?” she laughs. To stay grounded and to remember that the world is a healthy place, Mitzi relaxes with her network of close friends, cheers on her kids at their swim meets, and on summer weekends on the Cape, she races Flying Scots in various cup challenges, letting the wind whip freely around her.
Written by: Victoria Tilney McDonough ’83 is a writer based in Alexandria, Va.