Imprisonment can upend a person’s life. Upon returning to their communities, people leaving prison confront a world that wants little to do with them, educational and employment prospects that are dimmed by having a criminal record, and little in the way of resources and support.
This is even truer for people with mental health conditions. In Texas, an estimated 35 percent of inmates in state correctional facilities have a history of mental illness.1 The effects of incarceration don’t end once someone is released. Without access to services and support, people leaving prison will have a rough time building successful lives post-release.
The recent experience of Via Hope, who participated in a state-funded reentry peer support pilot program, taught us that peer specialists can be invaluable in helping clients navigate the barriers and pitfalls that come with community reentry. Now a new evaluation report, authored by Dr. Jennifer Reingle Gonzalez at The UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas, takes a deeper look at whether peer specialists can decrease recidivism, promote stable lives in the community, and encourage recovery of clients released from jail. What follows is a summary of the report’s interim findings.
- The importance of lived experience. Lived experience with mental health conditions is perceived as integral to peers’ ability to be effective in the role. One peer expressed that her lived experience is more valuable than her master’s degree. Peers use their experiences to help clients manage their own struggles: “I was able to relate [to clients because of] my trauma I’ve gone through in life.”
- Documentation is a barrier to successful reentry. One of the greatest difficulties that peers identified when working with clients is documentation: “it is not easy to just go and get an ID or social security card or birth certificate when you have nothing to prove who you are.” Clients require identification cards before treatment, housing, or employment barriers may be addressed.
- The threat of reoffending. A client stated that her peer specialist helped her stay out of jail: “I have wanted to relapse … and I will call [my peer] and I’ll tell her, ‘This is happening. I need help.’ She’ll just talk me down.” Other peers suggest that their role becomes more challenging the longer clients are in the community, as clients are drawn to friends who use drugs.
- Housing matters. Housing was a challenge for peers, as demand is high and waitlists can be lengthy. When housing resources are available, the poor quality or type (e.g., group home or shelter) makes them less desirable. One peer articulated the impact that housing can have on clients: “It wasn’t until after [the client] got housing…. She was super happy… it was beautiful.”
- Mental health and substance use services and supports. Peers identified the importance of treatment in client success. In some sites, clinical services are available but long waitlists persist for specialty services like psychiatry. One peer stated, “One client was contemplating suicide because of his audio hallucinations and I shared my experience of having those same symptoms and being incarcerated and what I did to cope.”
What’s Needed Now
Despite the resourcefulness of peers in leveraging their lived experiences to address clients’ mental health, substance use and housing needs, many structural barriers, such as limited access to quality housing and long wait lists for clinical care, persist. Overall, this evaluation strengthens the argument for the expansion of peer support reentry services statewide.
- Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments, TCOOMMI Services Template, Fiscal Year 2013.