by Chris Martin, Director of Training and Consultation at the Recovery Opportunity Center
What were the odds that out of 1,700 men, 13 would show up at the same awards ceremony dressed exactly alike? These men hadn’t consciously planned to dress alike that morning, nor had they consulted each other on what they would be wearing. But there they were: 13 beaming men sitting together in the front rows of a little chapel and almost indistinguishable from one another. Each had a brown shirt that matched his brown pants—the same color and style worn by the other 12 men. Their shirts even had the same designer label.
It was actually no coincidence these men were dressed alike. But the odds were tremendous—perhaps nothing short of miraculous—that they were being honored and awarded on this day. These men were among the first Certified Peer Specialists to graduate from a peer training course within a State prison. (The very first eight inmates graduated one month earlier at the Greensburg, Pennsylvania facility.) Remarkably, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDC) is the only prison system in the world to pioneer a project of this nature. Upon completion of the course, graduates are eligible to work as peer support specialists in the prison, providing support to fellow inmates.
The 13 men had successfully completed a 2-week peer employment training course delivered by Recovery Innovations. An internationally recognized program, the course prepares people with lived experience of mental illness to provide empowering peer support for those beginning recovery journeys. It is an intense, university-level course, which consists of a 230-page textbook, nightly reading and homework assignments, a substantial midterm exam, an evaluated oral exam, and a comprehensive final exam. Not only were these men setting a global precedent, but they had each graduated with an “A” grade!
On the other side of the aisle sat various officials from PDC, including Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, Superintendent Kenneth Cameron, Re-Entry Program Manager and project grant writer Mary Finck, and other State administrators, therapists, social workers, and officers. When Superintendent Cameron approached the podium, he looked at the graduates and said very frankly, “I’ve got to tell you that when we were first told about this project in our initial meeting, we were very skeptical. However, the more we thought about it, [the more] we began to realize we had an amazing opportunity to really use your skills here in the prison and ultimately provide you with a wonderful re-entry career on the outside.”
The graduates then shared some of their stories and what the class meant to them. A more senior graduate said taking the class helped him realize he was “in prison” long before he was actually there. But now he had hope. A younger graduate said, “To think that I once considered myself a ‘throwaway person’ and now I can be a true blessing to others—this is absolutely incredible!”
Everyone provided their full attention as a tall and strongly built graduate walked to the podium. He began to share his compelling story, but suddenly stopped. As he turned his head toward the prestigious guests, he took a deep breath and spoke in almost a whisper. “We want you to know that we are feeling very overwhelmed by your presence today. It tells us that you don’t see us [merely] as prisoners, but as men who can give something valuable to others.”
Perhaps many of the guests wondered about the odds of what they witnessed that day—13 men dressed alike, yet each so unique. I’m not sure of the number for those odds, but I do know a more significant number will be the people whose lives they’ll touch.
Shared here with permission from the: Recovery To Practice (RTP) Weekly Highlights