By Nancy E. Oates
Amy Blank Wilson focuses her research on people some find easy to forget.
She wants to understand what life is like for those with mental illness that impairs their functioning and who are involved in the criminal legal system. She wants to know what they need when the prison guard lets them out the door and locks the gate behind them, and they are once again free, wearing only the clothes they came in with, but with empty pockets, and still accompanied by the challenges they battle.
Wilson, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work and the Prudence F. and Peter J. Meehan Early Career Distinguished Scholar, has won multiple grants to fund her work that begins where people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression — who sometimes self-medicate with opioids or street drugs — intersect with the criminal legal system. She combines quantitative research, analyzing big data sets, with qualitative interviews to find the gaps in intervention programs and post-incarceration services. With that information, she develops and tests interventions.
“I use my energy to focus on a population in need,” Wilson said. “People in the criminal justice system with serious mental illness are suffering and facing a lot of inhumanity. I’m driven by the suffering I’ve seen — and I’ve seen a tremendous amount. I can’t be someone who looks away. I’m not wired that way.”
In 1993, Wilson took her degree in social welfare from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania to work in child welfare and then in a county mental health crisis system. At the latter, she became aware of people with serious mental illness stuck in an institutional circuit that kept them on a path of going from jail to the street to a hospital to a homeless shelter and back to jail. In response, she developed a jail discharge program, that now would be called a reentry program. Good as it was, it still couldn’t break the cycle. Persuading mental health programs to treat former prisoners was a particular barrier.
While working for the county in Pennsylvania, she took classes to complete a master’s in social work at Rutgers University. Given the intractable problems she’d witnessed in the mental health treatment and criminal justice systems, she thought a law career would enable her to shape policy. The probation and parole department happened to be in the same building where she worked, and figuring she’d be able to get to know some judges who could recommend her to law schools, she applied and was accepted to what she later learned was its very competitive job opening.
Her daily work in criminal court helped Wilson see that law was not her path. “I couldn’t affect outcomes,” she said. “I lost hope that we could fix this through policy.” Instead, she enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, finishing in 2006.
“Getting my PhD was a process of unlearning some of the things I thought I knew,” she said. “I had to take a different viewpoint and layer on social welfare policy, mental health policy, learn how we got to where we are, and learn a lot about research methods.”
For her dissertation, Wilson continued to wrestle with how to break the institutional circuit. Criminal legal research relied on quantitative data — demographics, criminal history, recidivism rates and the like — but that wasn’t showing Wilson where the gaps were nor revealing insights into how to fill them. So she launched an ethnographic qualitative study, engaging participant observation and conducting interviews to hear directly from the people with mental illness caught in the institutional circuit, a first for the criminal justice field and one that ignited a bit of controversy. Some researchers were skeptical that ethnographic research with people with serious mental illnesses would yield useful information.
The study results surprised Wilson and others in her field who had focused primarily on getting people newly released from jail into some sort of mental health treatment. As part of her study, she asked people to fill out a survey identifying the top three things they needed as soon as they were released from jail. “Getting mental health treatment” didn’t make the cut. The answers came back: “Help finding my family,” “A place to sleep,” “Money for food.”
She learned through her ethnographic research that the first few days after release from jail were chaotic as people scrambled to meet basic needs. Their living situations were often tenuous before incarceration, and they had no social safety net to rely on. They were caught in bureaucratic conundrums, such as “it takes ID to get an ID.”
“That was a turning point for me,” Wilson said. “That has defined my career. We needed to look at what was missing, not what was there. If I was going to take the position of the people I impact, I was going to have to take the lines of investigation less traveled.”
Bringing in the voice of those impacted by providers’ interventions pushed Wilson into the national spotlight.
Michelle Munson, now a professor at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work, recruited Wilson to Case Western Reserve University in 2010 and stayed in touch because their research intersects.
“As social workers, we’re the providers, but few of us have led scientific trials on their effectiveness,” Munson said. “Amy’s one of the few who’ve led federally funded studies in intervention science.”
Munson said Wilson’s work is timely and that she doesn’t shy away from difficult problems.
“She has always studied questions that have perplexed a lot of people, like mass incarceration and homelessness,” Munson said. “She believes in the social work values of all people deserving dignity and worth. It speaks to her humanity that she hasn’t forgotten them, and she wants them to live their best lives.”
Munson recalled interviewing Wilson at Case Western during the hiring process and realizing she was talking with a social worker who wouldn’t quit.
“Amy’s a fighter, the kind you want on your side if you don’t have a voice in the mental health field,” Munson said. “She’ll fight for you and your humanity.”
From her dissertation project in the Philadelphia correctional system, Wilson accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at Rutgers, then joined the Case Western faculty as an assistant professor and received the Mather Spotlight Prize for Women’s Scholarship in 2013.
While in Ohio, Wilson teamed up with Kathleen Farkas, a professor in Case Western’s School of Applied Social Sciences. The two adapted a successful recidivism reduction program in the Ohio correction system to make it more accessible to those with cognitive and mental health challenges. The two pilot studies they ran enabled people to master and integrate social skills and learn to work through problems without engaging in criminal behavior.
“Amy has an eye for the ironic,” Farkas said. “In correctional institutions, if you don’t view your work with people there through irony or humor, you can’t work in that setting and be productive.”
In 2014, UNC offered her an assistant professorship. She was promoted to associate professor, with tenure, in 2019.
Amy Watson, a researcher and professor at the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee School of Social Work, shared a mentor with Wilson, and the two Amys conducted research together early in their careers. Watson noticed early on the effort Wilson put into including the voices of people with mental illness and understanding the world from their perspective, especially the barriers they face.
“All of her work has had significant application for services,” Watson said. “The solutions we come up with are grounded in the experiences people have, their priorities and what they value. That’s critically important, and something a lot of other research misses.”
While her research is rigorous, Wilson doesn’t lock herself in the ivory tower of academics. She’s down-to-earth and focused on those who will benefit from her interventions. Her work has garnered a great deal of respect, but, said Watson, “it’s not about accolades for herself; it’s about improving people’s lives.”
During her career, Wilson has won more than 20 funded research grants, published some 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and presented at more than 75 professional conferences. She also has served on a number of advisory boards.
Most recently, Wilson won a highly selective three-year research grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to design and test a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention in hopes of effecting behavioral changes before people get caught up in the criminal justice system.
Robert Morgan, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences at Southern Illinois University, is part of Wilson’s team on that grant. He began working with her about a decade ago as their research interests overlap. As one of the first researchers to recognize the interface between criminal justice and mental health, Wilson integrated what had been two silos of study. The idea has caught on, and now she’s at the forefront of the field.
Morgan said Wilson has a rare combination of scientific rigor and compassion.
“She doesn’t collect data to prove her perspective,” he said, “but to inform what’s working and what’s not, and how we can do better.”
Working in prisons with this particular clientele can be grim at times. No one says thank you, Morgan said. Because of their challenges, “clients often work against you,” he said. Yet Wilson has uncommon resilience.
“One has to have incredible inner strength to maintain the effort and commitment,” Morgan said. “Reinforcement isn’t coming from the system or the client.”
Wilson recognizes the resilience in the people whose lives she’s working to improve. She grew up the daughter of a minister and a teacher, and the niece of social workers. Her family members were role models in understanding how to meet people through their dignity and worth, not through their pain, she said. “I saw small acts of kindness that were magnified to big change for those who received that kindness and care and support.”
That witness may be the key to understanding why, busy as she is in her career and protecting family time with her husband and their two teenagers, she agreed to co-direct Tiny Homes Village at the Farm at Penny Lane in Chatham County. The 15 affordable homes on a therapeutic farm will offer a haven to people with mental illness and chronic health conditions on a fixed income. Wilson expects the houses to break ground in the spring and be ready for occupancy this summer.
On days that seem too hard, when the progress is impossibly slow, hope keeps Wilson going. She recalls a study that involved face-to-face interviews with people who had reentered the community after a time in jail. Their situations were still shaky. They struggled to find a place to live and regular meals. Yet when they met her at the field office, they’d made an effort to dress up. One man arrived in his Sunday best, and she noted his attire.
Of course, he told her. “You’re taking time to learn about me; I want to put my best foot forward to show you how much it matters.” Her making time to talk with him gave him hope that maybe things in his life could be different.
“On my hardest days, the days I don’t want to get out of bed, I say to myself: My work matters,” she said. “The fact that I’m doing this work is creating hope. It gives people who aren’t seen an opportunity to contribute to other people’s lives, people who will face challenges they’re facing.
“I’m a conduit. It makes me work harder and faster and build bigger teams.”