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Prisoners thrive with peer support training

November 15, 2011
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD, and William A. Anthony, PhD
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Discovering recovery, helping others builds inmate confidence, helps re-entry

“Are we crazy?”

That was the question that ran through the mind of Superintendent Joseph Mazurkiewicz at the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg in July as he unpacked materials in preparation for a peer support class, the first of a series of six planned in the Special Needs units of six prisons in Pennsylvania.

Critical to the launch and success of pennsylvania's innovative, prison-based peer support training program were mary finck, re-entry program manager for the state department of corrections; john wetzel, secretary of department of corrections; and jessica bradley, from the office of mental health and substance abuse services (omhsas) in the state's department of public welfare.
Critical to the launch and success of Pennsylvania's innovative, prison-based peer support training program were Mary Finck, re-entry program manager for the state Department of Corrections; John Wetzel, Secretary of Department of Corrections; and Jessica Bradley, from the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS) in the state's Department of Public Welfare.

After observing the first peer support class at the State Correctional Institution at Cresson, Superintendent Kenneth Cameron told participants, “When we were first told about this project in our initial meeting, we were very skeptical. However, the more we thought about it, we began to realize we had an amazing opportunity to really use your skills here in the prison and ultimately provide you with a wonderful re-entry career on the outside.”

Is it working? So far the results are amazing with lots of unanticipated benefits that continue to fuel a successful process. But before we say more, let's go back and find out how this wild idea came about in the first place. It started when the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency planned to use some of their ARRA funds to address mental health needs in prisons. While doing “more of the same” would have been easy, there was a woman at the table who knew where the cutting edge of behavioral health programming was.

Jessica Bradley is a respected and dependable voice in matters of innovative programming, a woman who knows what she's talking about. Jessica has a lot of experience in creating and overseeing Forensic Peer Support work in Pennsylvania so, for her, it was logical to extend this work to the state's correctional institutions.

One can only imagine the conversation that ensued when this proposal first hit the table. But in the end, the state's Deputy Secretary of the Department of Corrections said, “Let's do it!”

While it took many amazing people to bring this project to life, one of the most amazing is Mary Finck, Re-entry Program Manager for the Department of Corrections, who wrote the grant application for the project. Mary saw not only the potential to create meaningful opportunities for inmates, but also saw the tremendous possibilities for impacting recidivism. Her passionate and attentive eye spotted every opportunity to advance and improve the process and she didn't hesitate to do so. If the program needed anything, once Mary found out, it would magically appear.

Program launch

The training began in July 2011 and is to continue through the end of the year when training in all six prisons will be completed. The intense 80-hour university level course, delivered by Recovery Innovations, consists of a 230-page textbook, nightly reading and homework assignments, a substantial mid-term exam, an oral exam, and a comprehensive final exam.

Local preparation for the training was completed by small workgroups involving members from Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections, its Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, certified peer specialists trained in forensic peer environments, and the Recovery Innovations training director.

After reviewing the curriculum, the groups found that only minor, cosmetic changes were needed to adapt the training to the prison setting. The reviews, which took less than a day to complete, really brought the local teams together for the start of the training programs.

At each institution, the peer training classes are complemented by the efforts of local training staff, who complete Recovery Innovations' Leading and Coaching a Peer Workforce, a course that develops recovery-oriented coaching skills for peer leaders. This course has been adapted for use in the institutional setting.

To date, coursework has been completed at four of the six institutions, without a single “flunk.” Some 75 percent of the students have already been hired and are doing well.

Comments from the graduates

Among the comments heard from peers at their respective graduation ceremonies were these:

“I realized that I was ‘in prison’ before I went to prison, but now I have hope,” said one.

“To think that I once considered myself a ‘throw-away person’ and now I can be a true blessing to others. This is absolutely incredible!”

Another began to share, but then stopped, mid-story and turned to graduation guests and said, “We want you to know that we are feeling very overwhelmed by your presence today. It tells us that you don't merely see us as prisoners but as men who can give something valuable to others.”

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