“Coming out of the criminal system, for many, means starting over with nothing,” Zarate says. “Our objective is to reduce hospitalization, reduce recidivism, and have them be successful in re-entering the community.”

The more we learn, the more obvious it seems that criminal justice and behavioral health reform go hand-in-hand. Serious mental illness can be up to four times more prevalent among incarcerated people than the general population, and inadequate reentry support can make the future uncertain.

In this episode of Into the Fold, certified peer specialist Romy Zarate of Tropical Texas Behavioral Health (TTBH) makes a powerful case for embedding peer support and education in the criminal justice system. Formerly incarcerated herself, she draws on her lived experiences with jail and mental illness to build rapport with those fighting the same battle.

“The skills that help me most are my passion to serve, and also my ability to identify with their needs because I’ve experienced this myself,” Zarate says. “I never had a peer upon my release, and I had to learn to re-enter on my own.”


Putting People First

Former inmates face roadblocks to reintegration at every turn, including lack of housing, sparse employment opportunities, and abridged access to medical and prenatal care. These pitfalls can pose serious threats to the recovery of someone diagnosed with mental illness.

Key to the theory and practice of peer support is a non-negotiable focus on the individual in need of support. For Zarate and other peer specialists, a typical day on the job revolves around person-centered tasks that connect participants with critical resources. Treatment options and potential eligibility for related benefits also become part of the conversation.

Although the affinity between supporter and participant strengthens over time, Zarate says boundaries must be set and maintained to keep the relationship healthy. Self-sufficiency configures deeply into established recovery goals — a sense of stability that codependency risks uprooting.

“In the beginning, I remember I wanted to be a superhero,” Zarate says. “But I learned that my job is to teach, model, share, be supportive — not save the world.”

Now, thanks to support from the PIR Voice Project, Zarate facilitates a female peer group with inmates diagnosed with mental illness. Members meet weekly to engage in education, skill building, and recovery-oriented activities. Expansion plans that bring male inmates onboard are underway, though Zarate doesn’t plan on stopping until peer support services are “available to every inmate across the United States.”


Building Peer Support from the Ground Up

Also featured in this episode is Reggie Smith, a peer policy fellow for Communities for Recovery. Like Zarate, he uses his lived experience in the criminal justice system to hone and energize his advocacy efforts.

“I didn’t have peer support,” Smith says, referring to his own reentry struggles. “So now, working in the peer support field, I see just how much I could have really benefited from it.”

Smith gives another on-the-ground perspective of peer support, this time from the policy realm. He discusses the impact of Rider 73, a product of the 84th legislative session that appropriated funds for a peer support reentry pilot program.

The program teams up certified peer support specialists with local law enforcement to facilitate successful reentry, bridging gaps between clinical services and chipping away at other barriers to community participation. Smith says that “start-up issues” with certification and procurement affected the program’s efficacy in 2016. This year, however, all three pilot sites are fully staffed, and projections place the number of individuals served as high as 400 by the end of 2017.

Smith cites Peerstar LLC (Pennsylvania) and HOPE Incorporated (Arizona) as two praiseworthy peer support service providers whose programs are a model for the Texas pilot. Both afford specialists latitude in their interactions with people served, ensuring a degree of closeness often lost in more systematized approaches to reentry.

“It’s just not left up to chance anymore,” he says. “In this way, more people are able to achieve their goals in life and to reach their full potential. I think that’s the best thing about peer support.”

Learn more about our podcast and check out other episodes!

Related: Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System