In an effort to help the many Vermont inmates suffering from addiction before their release, a nonprofit in Rutland is trying something different: providing peer-to-peer counseling.
Seventy percent of Vermont inmates have some sort of substance abuse issues, according to officials. But only about $5 million of the $154 million spent each year by the Vermont Department of Corrections is spent on drug treatment.
Advocates at the Turning Point Center in Rutland — a nonprofit that provides recovery coaching and other services to those fighting addiction — believe more treatment options for inmates would help reduce recidivism and lower incarceration costs.
Inside Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland, one of those options is peer-to-peer counseling.
Tracie Hauck, the Turning Point Center’s director, and her assistant, Tanya Wright, lead the peer-to-peer program.
On a recent Monday, Hauck and Wright stowed their car keys and cell phones in lockers near the entrance of the Rutland jail and made their way past multiple security doors to a glassed-in meeting room.
Because so many of their clients have spent time in the corrections system, Hauck believes helping inmates before they get out of prison, makes it easier for them to take advantage of recovery services after they’re released.
Once inside, about 15 inmates joined the two women on red plastic chairs around a long table.
Hauck begins with the day's lesson from Making Recovery Easier, a multi-week course meant to support twelve-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous. The men, all in various stages of recovering from addiction, check-in one by one.
“Day’s been kind of rough,” admitted one inmate.
Prison officials asked VPR not to use names of inmates in this story or take any photographs of the sessions.
The inmate continued, “my court date keeps getting pushed back and I miss my kids. My son’s mad at me, which I guess is understandable 'cuz I’m in jail.”
“I’m just trying to make it through day by day,” he said softly to the other men in the room.
Having conquered her own addiction to pain medications, Hauck says she’s able to talk to inmates without judging. Midway through the session, for instance, she asked the men about what triggered their last relapse.
One admitted it was on his son’s ninth birthday, after promising he’d come to the child’s party. Another said he can’t remember why he relapsed, it just kept happening, and he was sick of it.
Several others in the room nodded in understanding and one asked why the Department of Corrections doesn’t do more to help addicts.
Hauck explained that it’s not the DOC’s area of expertise. “They’re not sponsors,” she pointed out.
“Hold on, hold on,” said a man sitting in the back corner. “There’s got to be some responsibility to take your life in your own hands at some point."
“I don’t expect DOC to do anything for me but try to f*** me. That’s it,” he said emphatically. “I put myself here. I’m not here because I’m innocent; I did something, you know what I mean?”
His voice got louder as he continued, “It’s up to me to leave the unit to come to AA, to come to Make Recovery Easy or Smart Recovery [another one of Hauck’s programs] meetings. I gotta do something for myself.”
“When I get out on the streets I’m scared to f***in’ death. If I left today I wouldn’t know what the f*** to do.”
“But come on guys,” he said to the others in the room. “Like, at some point you have to take responsibility.”
There was a murmur of agreement in the room.
Starting “sobriety in jail”
The men all say they want stay clean, but Tracie Hauck says most lack the means to do it. They’re angry, she says, they don't trust anyone, and they feel worthless.
“It’s tough,” she explains. “When they’re in [prison] they can have all these ideas about what recovery is and what they’ll need to do and how they need to do it. But when they get out, they don’t have work and they don’t know what to do with their time.”
So it becomes easy to fall back into old patterns, she says.
That’s the cycle Hauck’s trying to break: If she and other recovery coaches can forge healthy connections and build trust with inmates while they’re in jail, she figures the men will have someone safe to call when they get out.
That’s what happened for Robert Blaise.
Blaise says he began drinking when he was 15, got addicted to pain pills in his 20s, after a construction job injury, and tried heroin for the first time in his 30s.
“What a mistake that was,” he says shaking his head. “I thought I could control it.”
“Within two months time I was selling my tools to support my habit. I was getting behind on my truck payments and on my rent and then I did some burglaries to support my habit,”
“It destroyed my life and my loved ones around me,” he says.
The Middlebury native spent five years in and out of various prisons. AA and NA meetings in jail didn’t interest him because he says inmates often used them to deal drugs or socialize. And he says the higher power message was a turn-off.
Like many prisons, Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility offers ongoing 12-step programs like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous. But Hauck says AA and NA meetings can be a turnoff to some because they’re ritualistic and may seem cultish. They also don’t allow questions like Making Recovery Easier which encourages participants to talk about their concerns.
“Some people are never going to get 12-steps for whatever reasons and that shouldn’t mean they can’t get sober,” says Hauck. “It’s important to give them some different options,” she says.
“And remind them someone cares."
Hauck’s other program — Smart Recovery — avoids spirituality altogether using a different curriculum.
Blaise says he discovered peer-to-peer counseling by accident.
“One day I was walking by the group [Making Recovery Easier] in jail and I decided to walk in and go to my first meeting ever. It was Tanya and Tracie,” he says smiling. “After that first meeting I was hooked and went to every one of them.”
Blaise got out of prison in late June and within a few days walked into the Turning Point Center to follow up. He’s says he’s been coming back ever since.
“I started my sobriety in jail, yes,” Blaise explains. “But if I didn’t take that next step to getting help and walking into them groups I wouldn’t have known what to do ‘cuz I failed before on my own, so I wouldn’t have known where to turn.”
The 37-year-old says he’ll celebrate two years of sobriety in November.
“I’m doing really good,” he says nodding.
“I just graduated from the first phase of drug court; I go to meetings; I meet my recovery coach every Tuesday. I’m slowly building a bank account again.”
“I mean when I was using, I didn’t have money enough for coffee,” he says shaking his head.
“So, yeah, I’m doing everything I can do to keep my sobriety.”
Tracking The Numbers
Tracie Hauck admits success stories like Blaise's are rare. She’s only had a handful in the 16 months she’s been offering the prison programs. Tracking participants is difficult she says because it’s voluntary and there’s no clinical follow up.
And she’s so busy doing the work she says there’s not enough time left to gather data.
But considering it costs $70,000 a year to house an inmate in Rutland, Hauck believes the low-cost peer-to-peer counseling she’s offering is worth the effort.
She says their work in Rutland’s jail is paid for out of the Turning Point Center’s limited Budget and receives no DOC funding, something she’d like to see change.
Lisa Menard, Vermont’s Commissioner of Corrections says no other Vermont prisons are offering this type of program and she and other DOC officials admit they knew little about Rutland’s efforts.
The state’s prison in Newport plans to launch its own peer counseling program for low risk offenders soon. That program will have an annual budget of about $100,000 and include data collection to assess outcomes, which Menard says is crucial for long term funding.
The commissioner says substance abuse treatment is offered more broadly in Vermont prisons as part of their overall behavioral modification curriculum and what they offer varies from facility to facility.
Medically assisted treatments that fight addiction like: methadone, buprenorphine and Vivitrol are also available to some inmates on a short-term or one-time basis.
“Is there treatment readily available for anybody and everybody in every facility? No,” says Menard, “Not at the same level there isn’t, but we are certainly doing what the evidence supports, and that’s putting sometimes scarce resources into the highest leverage people.”
“I certainly think that the Turning Point Centers, given that they are in so many places in the state, and have a broad array of services in the community, are a place to form partnerships,” says Menard.
But what that looks like going forward is unclear, she says, adding, that the department will look closely at the data gathered in Newport from peer counseling efforts that will soon begin there.
In the meantime Hauck has applied for a $99,000 community based health grant to help fund and expand their program in Rutland for three years.
Of the twelve recovery centers in Vermont, Rutland's is the only one offering this type of program.
While her funding remains uncertain, Hauck says progress she has seen keeps her going.
“I don’t always take credit for what we do,” she admits. “But if it makes that changing point in somebody’s life where they want to do something different,” she says, her voice catching with emotion. “It’s amazing; it’s amazing!”
She mentions a recent client who took part in their peer counseling while he was incarcerated, but struggled a lot after his release.
“You know he could have gone out there and used; he could have overdosed and died; he could have been sitting in jail, so many other things that could have happened,” says Hauck. “But something made him want to walk in here to talk to us. It wasn’t because he just happened to see the sign, it was because he knew us from the jail,” she says nodding.
She knows there are no guarantees he’ll stay on the right path, but says he’s got a job now, has reconnected with his kids, and for the first time in years, admitted to her he feels hopeful.
It’s a start, says Hauck.
Correction 9:00 a.m. 11/7/17 An earlier version of this story misstated that there were seven Turning Point Centers in Vermont. In fact there are 12 recovery centers across the state.