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A healthy addiction
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 09/17/2007

Counselors This September marks the 18th annual National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month, and one California prison is expanding an innovative recovery program that is turning heads and turning lives around. San Quentin State Prison runs the first and only program in the United States in which inmates train to become certified drug and alcohol counselors by treating other inmates struggling with addiction.

There are two pieces to this unique effort: the Addiction Counselors Training (ACT) program provides classroom instruction and work experience for the counselors-in-training, and the Addiction Recovery Counseling (ARC) program utilizes the trainees to treat other inmates. ACT aims to help inmate trainees become certified by the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (CAADAC) for work in addiction treatment facilities when released or while still in prison.

The certification process is arduous; inmates must complete a year of education, a six month counseling practicum followed by a written exam, and a 4,000 hour counseling internship, which ends with an oral exam. Those tackling this long journey do have one advantage that might not be seen as a positive in any other light - they have all had been addicted to drugs or alcohol themselves.

“The fact that the men have walked in those shoes brings an extra dimension to the counseling they provide,” says Claire-Elizabeth DeSophia, the clinical director for the San Quentin programs. Her non-profit organization Full Circle Addiction Recovery Services provides volunteer clinicians and educators for ACT and ARC.

“The participants undergoing treatment in the ARC program love that they’re having well-trained inmates as their counselors,” she says. “They know their counselor understands what they’re going through, because he’s been there, had addictions, and is in recovery. Also, it helps that the counselors are inmates who understand what it’s like to live in prison.”

Eleven inmates enrolled in the first ACT training, which began in 2005 and rounded up its first classroom portion with a graduation in December 2006. In a major step towards obtaining their certification, nine of the eleven men passed the CAADAC written exam this June to become drug and alcohol associates, or advanced interns. There are currently ten inmate counselors working towards their certification.

“The counselor trainees had to have what amounted to over a year of education before they could even start the counseling of other inmates,” DeSophia explains. “We had about 20 volunteers, all experienced clinicians or educators, teaching in ACT. Now we have a small group of about six or eight that support the men doing their internship with ARC.”

The counselor trainees treat their fellow inmates with one-on-one counseling sessions and by leading small counseling groups. They also create and deliver lectures for 48 addiction recovery classes.

“The only people who do counseling are the inmates,” she adds. “They do everything. They actually do a lot of the administrative work, and it’s great job training. They’ve learned what it takes to actually run a treatment center in terms of case management, creating the files, day-to-day forms, and statistics. They do all of that. They’ve gone beyond being counselors to being coordinators and mangers with the clients.”

Inmates chose the CAADAC certification because it offers a multitude of opportunities within the addiction counseling field.

“They can get really good jobs in the treatment field because the certification they themselves chose is the gold standard,” says DeSophia. “If any treatment facility or organization is going to accept someone who doesn’t have a license, they will accept the CAADAC certification.”

The CAADAC certification incorporates standards of practice that are nationally and internationally recognized.

“Even if our counselors left the state, they’d probably have reciprocity to work somewhere,” DeSophia says. “The training prepares them for a major hospital treatment program, so when the inmate is ready to parole we can place them to either finish the internship or, when they’re done, to work as fully certified counselors.”

ACT and ARC are enjoying such success the first time around, there has been a waiting list for the next training session to begin.

“We’re hopefully training a new batch starting in another two months at the latest,” DeSophia says. “We’re going to call it ACT II. We’ll be starting another whole cohort with 35 inmates.”

The inmate counselors are suddenly finding themselves in high demand, both inside and outside San Quentin.

“We’re getting requests from the community to put our trained guys out with the youths,” DeSophia says. “The San Quentin warden created an area of the prison he believes will have 1,000 inmates by mid-next year and he wants us to be the addiction treatment program to serve them. We could never treat all thousand, but even if we treated a fourth of that population we’d be pretty busy. That’s why I need more counselors.”

The ARC program is currently designed to treat a maximum of 50 inmates, and it isn’t just growing in terms of numbers. It’s growing in scope too.

“We’ve begun re-entry services, so when either the inmate counselors or the inmates that have undergone treatment are ready to hit the gate, we have services for them,” DeSophia says. “We’ve set up a pilot program in partnership with community agencies to pick up parolees at the gate and provide housing, job training, and continued addiction and mental health treatment. These are the guys that fall through the cracks and wind up back in prison, so hopefully this reentry component will have a big impact.”

ACT and ARC are also looking to expand to other prisons.

“We’ve been getting requests from other prisons asking for information and to consult with them about these programs,” DeSophia says. “We’re going to videotape the next counselor training to provide other prisons with so they won’t have to find volunteers. We’re so lucky that California is just rich with people with good hearts and the expertise to do what we need, but a prison out in the middle of desert might not have our resources.”

Even though those volunteers have been the driving force behind the San Quentin programs, DeSophia knows she could accomplish a lot more with more money.

“Right now we’re not funded by the state, and we run the programs on volunteers and donations. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation gave us a grant for the re-entry services pilot program. Hopefully, ACT and ARC will be included in next year’s budget.”

This is an exciting time of growth for San Quentin and Full Circle, and this unique and innovative program just might be gaining the momentum it needs to take off across the country.

Related Resources:

Learn more about National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month

Listen to an NPR program on ACT and ARC

Latest BJS report on drug use in prisons


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