“History of incarceration is a plus.”
It’s not a phrase people are accustomed to seeing on job announcements. In fact, as many formerly incarcerated people can attest, their background often precludes them from even qualifying for many jobs.
But when a job requires people to use their personal experience to credibly support others through drug or alcohol recovery — as it does for certified recovery mentors (CRMs) — employers seek applicants with backgrounds similar to that of their clients. And, sometimes, that includes mentors who know firsthand how to navigate the transition from incarceration back into the community.
When Ed Zager, the Oregon Youth Authority’s statewide substance use disorder treatment coordinator, tells youth about a job that requires them to have a history of substance use and doesn’t automatically shun criminal backgrounds, their eyes often light up. He still remembers when he was browsing a treatment-related job board several years ago and noticed several employers looking for CRMs who had previously been incarcerated.
“The job of CRMs is to help people who are trying to go through recovery from substance use, often when they are coming out of facilities,” Zager says. “It could be as simple as helping them get an ID card, or helping them get food stamps or housing, or giving them another support person or advice as they are working through their recovery.
“For our youth who have been in facilities themselves, it gives them more credibility because they’ve had the experience, and they know how to navigate the recovery system.”
OYA already has a history of youth mentoring other youth in its close-custody facilities. Zager wondered if it would be possible to train OYA youth to become CRMs while they were still inside. The youth would have a solid job opportunity after release, but they could also practice their skills by mentoring before they left — further enhancing OYA’s substance use disorder (SUD) treatment by providing youth with additional supports.
Currently, three of OYA’s facilities are licensed for SUD treatment through the Oregon Health Authority’s (OHA) Health Services Division. The need for these services for OYA youth is great — 63 percent of male youth and 73 percent of female youth deal with some level of substance use disorder.
Zager worked with several OYA substance use treatment coordinators and counselors to develop a CRM training curriculum they could use inside the facilities that would meet the standards of OHA’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, allowing the youth to earn a Traditional Health Workers certification when they completed the program.
OHA reviewed the curriculum and gave OYA approval to try the program on a one-year pilot basis. Youth who completed the training would also earn certified recovery mentor status from the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of Oregon (ACCBO), which offered to waive the $100 certification fee for each youth.
In September 2017, the first eight candidates for OYA’s CRM training program gathered at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn. They were a diverse group of both young men and young women, coming from three OYA facilities.
They had to meet several qualifications to participate: at least two years of sobriety, completion of OYA’s substance use treatment program, no major behavior-related incidents for a certain period of time, and only certain types of crimes committed (several crimes, including murder and rape, disqualify people from becoming CRMs).
These youth also stood out to treatment staff because of their strong commitment to sobriety, their leadership qualities, and their desire to turn their past mistakes into an opportunity to help others.
Many say their out-of-control substance use was directly tied to why they committed the crime that brought them into OYA custody — and they want to influence other youth to avoid making the same choices they did.
“During my time here, I’ve realized that my purpose for being alive is to help others,” says Tim H., an 18-year-old at MacLaren who participated in the program. “I want to give back to the world as much as I took away.”
Tim had the opportunity to meet with Oregon Governor Kate Brown when she toured MacLaren in June. Brown says she was “blown away” by the dedication and enthusiasm of the mentors.
“I’m so proud that OYA is creating opportunities for our youth to forge a positive career path that leverages some of their most difficult experiences,” Brown says.
“The disease of addiction devastates Oregonians in all walks of life. Peer-delivered services represent one of the best ways to break through the barriers of stigma, helping us advance the prevention, treatment, and recovery services that improve the health of Oregonians struggling with substance use disorder.”
Turning a Negative into a Positive
On a sunny morning last fall, the eight youth sipped coffee and water during a lesson on “Communication, Motivation, and Crisis Intervention” from Scott Palmer, a group life coordinator at MacLaren who is a certified alcohol and drug counselor.
Though it was early, and they had a long day ahead — overall they would attend two full days of class a week for three weeks in a row, for a total of 40 hours — the youth took copious notes, asked pointed questions, and participated easily in group activities.
Palmer and Zager led them through a group discussion on how mentors need to set aside their own biases when working with clients. Kathryn S., from Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility, asked what to do if you know the victim of the person you’re mentoring — do you tell them right away, or keep it to yourself?
“You will need to determine based on your biases whether you’re able to work with them,” Zager answered. “If you need to hand this person off to someone else, then you should do that. It’s all about the client feeling valued — that they matter. Do you have an example of when you felt valued by staff?”
Shylo R., a 21-year-old who had come up from Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass for the training, raised his hand. “I was the only one from my facility invited to this,” he said. “It showed they trust me enough to go to this, and to do something good with it.”
Shylo describes himself as someone who has struggled with addiction issues from an early age. At first, he was addicted to activities like tagging buildings with graffiti. Eventually he moved up to more serious things like drug use.
When he first came to OYA nearly four years ago, he says, “I influenced people in a bad way. I’m not about that anymore. I think this [being a CRM] is a better way to use the influence I have. I can give people advice or be there for them.”
Going through treatment at OYA helped him realize it would be easier to commit to sobriety while inside than to wait until he was back in the community, he said.
Even before doing the CRM training, Shylo was informally mentoring youth at his facility.
“I still influence people,” he says. “When I was still making bad choices, people followed me. Then I started working with people in a positive way. … People in here who struggle with addiction will relate better to someone their age who has been through it.”
Tim H. felt inspired to become a CRM for similar reasons. He wants to work with youth who have just arrived at OYA, because he remembers how volatile he was at that time.
“My mentality at intake was, ‘F— the world. I’m gonna be a criminal,’” he says. “I heard you could get a job here, go to school, but I told people that wasn’t for me. I changed while I was here. I went from a mentality of just doing my time to making the best out of my stay.”
Tim grew up around family members who used drugs and started using substances himself at an early age. The idea of a life without substance use was foreign to him when he came to OYA.
A big part of his change came when he started SUD treatment at Rogue Valley, and he began hanging out with more positive people.
“I started working out, got obsessed with running, sports, lifting weights, doing school,” he says. “When you don’t have time to do drugs, you don’t do drugs. That’s my philosophy.
“I think I can help guys at intake because it’s different when a peer tells you, ‘You can do this. Your life’s not over. This is just the start.’ I shed truth on some of the myths of what it’s gonna be like here. They don’t have to come here and be the biggest and baddest. There’s a whole different life available to them.”
All eight youth at last year’s CRM training completed the coursework, and seven ultimately earned their certifications (one paroled out before completing the certification process). Several are already helping staff run treatment groups at their facilities or doing one-on-one mentoring on living units. The first year was such a success that OHA’s Office of Equity and Inclusion granted OYA approval to continue the program for three more years.
Rick Kessel, a volunteer at MacLaren who is a CRM with the Marion County Health Department Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program, watched the eight youth go through training and helped answer their questions along the way. He was impressed with their tenacity and dedication to the program.
“To be able to gain this experience while they’re inside the institution will be a huge benefit when they get out,” he says.
Many of the youth have already become integral members of their facilities’ substance use treatment teams, says Mike Hill, the substance use treatment coordinator at MacLaren.
“They are invited to our staff meetings, they attend [treatment team] meetings for their mentees, and they meet with me monthly for clinical supervision,” Hill says. “They really are an asset to what we do.”
‘They are Natural Mentors’
Josefina R. and Kathryn S., the only two young women invited to the first training, have already been making a big difference at Oak Creek YCF, say staff at the facility.
“Both of them are pros — they are natural mentors,” says Nick Pearce, their case coordinator. “They walk the walk, so when they come to group, the other girls know they’re for real, which makes them more effective than us staff.”
They have been helping staff run SUD treatment groups, and they each started their own sober living groups to show youth other positive, fun activities they can do without alcohol or drugs.
“A lot of girls, when they get here and people ask what they like to do, they can’t think of anything that they didn’t do while high,” Kathryn says.
Kathryn remembers that feeling vividly. The 20-year-old came to Oak Creek at age 18 feeling a great deal of grief and guilt related to her crime. She wasn’t under the influence when she committed the crime, she says, but she was using heavily during that time in her life. Now, she’s been sober for nearly three years.
“I started to change when I realized what I did to my family when I was out,” she says. “I thought my family didn’t care about me, but the opposite was true. I realized if I kept using when I got out, it would be like a slap in the face to them. Being clean for them is easier than being clean for me.”
Kathryn got a lot of help in her journey to sobriety from Hill, who previously ran SUD treatment at Oak Creek. He was the one who initially asked Kathryn and Josefina if they were interested in the CRM training.
“I really liked the idea of checking in with people who have the same mindset I used to have — that family’s not important, and it’s more important to go out with your friends and have fun,” Kathryn says.
“Eventually you realize that you were sticking your neck out for people when you were on the outs, but when you’re in here, none of them are writing to you. It’s really your family who is visiting you or putting money on your books.”
Josefina, 22, shares a similar message with the youth she mentors. She says that when she first came to OYA at age 17, she was forced into sobriety by her incarceration, but she didn’t care about sticking with it long-term. It took her several years before she started getting more involved with treatment groups and taking sobriety seriously.
“Before, I had no empathy,” she says. “I didn’t really care about other people when I was out and using. Being in here, I realized I do care about people. I love being able to make someone’s day, and help someone out of that hole they are in. It feels good to know I can help change their life.”
Josefina’s care for others was obvious during a treatment group she led on her living unit in April. She led four youth in a group discussion about questions like who was affected by their addiction, how they communicated with their families while they were under the influence, and how they defined true friends.
The youth were obviously comfortable sharing their personal stories with Josefina, detailing stories about everything from lying to their moms to get money to pay drug dealers, to getting high alongside their parents. They also shared the feelings that now accompanied those actions — guilt, regret, sadness.
As each youth told her story, Josefina listened intently, sometimes asking follow-up questions or offering her perspective, but never showing judgment. This was not lost on the group members. Afterward, they said it was easier to open up to Josefina because she knew firsthand what they had been through.
But there was also another benefit to her mentoring: they saw her as a role model.
“It’s empowering when she leads group,” one youth said. “She’s in here like we are, but she’s showing us the steps she took to succeed.”
Said another: “She hasn’t given up. Even after we screw up, we can still do positive things.”
Zager says that OYA plans to begin training a second group of CRMs sometime this winter. Given the impact the first mentors are already having, volunteers for the second class shouldn’t be hard to find.