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Social re-networking fights crime, addiction

August 12, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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Jail alumni work with offenders to cut recidivism, boost recovery—literally, on a dime

These days, it’s tough to find a social service agency that is adding services rather than cutting them. But the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, serving the Chicago metro area, has found a way—and for less than $2,000. Through its newly developed Alumni Association outreach program, the Cook County Jail’s Day Reporting and Pre-Release Centers (DRC/PRC) network substance users, either on probation or awaiting trial for non-violent crimes, with program alumni committed to recovery.

Though the jail has several programs dedicated to substance use treatment, including a 449-bed intensive inpatient program, Bob Mindell, director of Treatment Contract Services in the Department of Community Supervision and Intervention at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, says that there are few accessible aftercare services. Once men complete their three- to six-month stay, they are released back into the community, and back to old circles of friends.

“For guys who have been involved with what our guys have been involved in, they have a negative social network; it’s a gang or apparatus for selling drugs,” Mindell says. “So if they come out and their only resource is that social network, they’ll go back to doing what they were doing before.”

Role models for re-entry
After noticing a strong bond among six participants who had successfully completed the program and achieved recovery from substance use problems, program directors sought to extend their recovery success to new participants. The new program invites successful alumni to network with recovering participants, helping them to build more positive social circles. Though it has informally existed for years, the DRC/PRC Alumni Association was formed in late 2009 to begin planning the outreach program, which was launched at a ceremony last Friday. Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart speaks at the kick-off ceremony for the Alumni Association.

“We looked at the Alumni Association as the support group that could help men make the transition from the treatment program here back into the community,” Mindell says. “It’s really that first month or two that’s going to determine whether people are successful, and if they’re not able to make that bridge, it’s very easy for them to fall back into old patterns.”

Since its formation, alumni have returned to the DRC/PRC to meet with participants, helping them to continue good habits developed in treatment following their release. Often, this includes invitations to local to AA and NA meetings that alumni regularly attend in the community.

“When I went to 12-Step meetings at first I didn’t really understand it,” says Lee McClain, a DRC/PRC alumni of 11 years and counselor at the Cook County Jail. “What encouraged me was the alumni, the same guys that were coming to talk to us and I had learned to trust, saying, ‘Come with us.’”

Through the new program, the DRC/PRC hopes regular interaction with alumni will not only support participants are they prepare to reenter the community, but as they attempt to achieve another goal of recovery: finding gainful employment.

The Cook County correctional system offers vocational services to help participants secure jobs or training post-treatment, but Mindell has found his program’s “social network” model to be much more effective. “We know from surveying people that most of those who come out of this program and find work [do so] through relatives or other people they know, not through some sort of vocational service,” he says. “Particularly people who might consider themselves middle class, they’re more likely to be reaching out to their network than going to a vocational program.”

McClain agrees, and notes that his own job hunting efforts were ineffective after leaving the DRC/PRC. “All the jobs I got came from alumni members and word of mouth,” he says. “They gave me hope, which is what I really needed.”

In the future, the DRC/PRC also plans to extend the Alumni Association’s work into family and relationship support—an area of concern for many in current programs. While reinitiating ties with parents, spouses, or children that have suffered as a result of substance use may be difficult, alumni can serve as role models to help ease tensions or share first-hand experience.

“We’re increasingly trying to plan activities around this,” Mindell says. “It’s important for these guys at some point to show their family they’re doing well and are committed to doing well.”

Low cost, high credibility
Mindell points out that the idea of relying on a social network for recovery support goes against the traditional social services model of referring those in need to public services. But to him, it’s just as effective—if not more so.

Members of the Alumni Association accept certificates from Sheriff Dart. “[Social services] is becoming a more difficult model for everybody to operate, partly because of shrinking public dollars,” he says. “But even when there is a lot of money, that’s not the only tool available.” Through a small amount of funding—about $2,000 total—from grants and vendors, the DRC/PRC has been able to fund the alumni outreach program, along with a kick-off cookout for 600 people. “It’s basically a free program,” he says.

Recent and long-time alumni are recruited to the program through monthly mailings and e-mailings, as well as informal “phone tree” networks, while current DRC/PRC participants are brought in through informational meetings prior to re-entry. In all, there are about 45 active alumni, and as the association grows, committees will be modeled in the structure of a 12-Step program for referral, recreation, bylaws, and the like.

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