A Pennsylvania prison inmate carries a binder with two words on it: “Recycled Trash.” He suffers from severe mental illness and accompanying issues. His life has been a struggle every step of the way -- from being tossed in a trash can as a baby to being forced to eat out of a dog bowl and ultimately feeling completely dehumanized. The inmate says he felt beat down and thrown away -- like trash; something without value.
But he eventually confronted his issues and rose above them, becoming one of the hundreds of inmates who’re helping others as a certified peer specialist (CPS). ‘Recycled trash’ reminds the man that he’s no longer worthless; that, in his words, “I am something, and I’m worth something.”
“It’s an example of results the Pennsylvania Corrections Department’s Certified Peer Specialist program is producing,” says Lynn Patrone, a mental health advocate.
Having been there makes all the difference. Working out of addiction with the help of someone who has already made that transition can be a huge asset to people in recovery. And, helping others can be a great way to remain in recovery. “You can’t keep recovery if you can’t also give it to others,” says one CPS.
The Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) program has been operating in Pennsylvania’s correction system for about eight years. It started with a successful pilot program that was expanded to all facilities. Now there are 20 to 30 CPS’s in each facility. The program is working so well, Patrone says their ranks may be increased.
More than 500 inmates have been trained as CPS’s. They provide support services to their fellow inmates on different issues, including addiction. Using the peer-to-peer model, it’s similar to sponsorship in other recovery programs. CPS’s also seek out other inmates who may need assistance and help them with their short and long-term recovery goals, plus assist with helping maintain their recovery.
Participants are nominated for the program. They must have experienced mental illness, addiction, or both, and be in recovery. They must also be misconduct-free during their incarceration. Then, participants receive 75 hours of training.
There are many positive benefits to the program, Patrone says. “The CPS’s are like a second set of eyes within the facility and the correctional staff like that. Inmates are more likely to open up to a peer who’s a CPS than they are to staffers. It also provides the CPS with an employment opportunity. Perhaps most importantly, it gives participants a sense of self-worth and value. For many, it’s the first time in their life they’ve ever experienced that.”
Just ask the CPS who carried “Recycled Trash” on his binder. “When I can bring hope to someone else, it gives me a purpose,” he explains. “I’m no longer trash. Trash isn’t good for anything. I’ve been recycled. Recyclables are good for something. I am something, and I am worth something.”
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Certified Peer Specialist Program was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.