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San Quentin prisoners trained as drug counselors

By Brigid Gaffikin, Bay City News Service

December 7, 2006

SAN QUENTIN (BCN) - In a series of firsts, 14 inmates of San Quentin State Prison graduated today from a training course that prepared them to staff the prison's first addiction recovery counseling program, the first such program to be run entirely by inmate counselors, a prison official said.

The 18-month-long addiction recovery counseling course is a prelude to preparing the prisoners, all of whom are serving life terms, for counseling certification tests offered by the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, according to Lt. Eric Messick.

Today's graduates range in age from around 35 to 55 and are all serving life terms, he said. They are taught by professionals from around the Bay Area.

"Even if they never themselves get to go home ... they'll still be giving back" by providing their services to other inmates, he said. "This (is a) goldmine of professional services being offered here by volunteers," he said.

Messick estimated that 90 percent of inmates are in prison across the state because of behavior that resulted from drug or alcohol addiction.

According to CAADAC spokeswoman Rebekah Gray, the 4,000 hours of internship training required before certification typically amounts to two years of work.

To date, all drug and alcohol counseling at the prison has been run by volunteers, including a group called the Insight Prison Project, which offers 18 self-development classes daily to inmates, he said.

While those classes are invaluable -- and will continue to be offered to both the general population -- some inmates, frustrated by the lack of a solid counseling program at San Quentin, approached volunteers about starting a training program for themselves, which culminated in today's graduation.

"They're doing this outside their requirement of having to work their regular prison jobs," he said, adding that counseling may ultimately become one of the many regular work assignments available to prisoners.

Today's graduates will work with the entire prison population as they move toward certification, but they are also likely to be heavily involved in a new program slated to start in February called "Stand Up," or "Successful Transitions and New Directions," he said.

Inmates will be housed in a 1,000-bed re-entry unit, he said. Stand Up participants have to be from the Bay Area and at least six months and no more than five years from parole.

Unlike earlier programming designed to prepare prisoners for release, Stand Up is endorsed by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which effectively guarantees all 800 beds allocated will be used solely for that program.

Participation will be mandatory for everyone who is assigned to Stand Up. Courses will include training on anger management, alternatives to violence and restorative justice, which involves inmates coming face-to-face with their victims, Messick said.

The goal of the Stand Up program is "to release these guys back into society less likely to revictimize," he said.

"These guys get out of prison and they get home and they start making demands and no one told them what kind of stress they put their family through," he said. The first time many parolees have to consider the ramifications of what led them to prison is when they're back in the outside world, putting them at further risk of engaging in the same behaviors that got them into prison in the first place, he explained.

Messick said the city of Oakland and Alameda County, such as Project Reach, are among those working to offer self-development programs after release that coordinate with the prison's programs.

He was enthusiastic about CAADAC's involvement in the program, citing the organization's decision to donate expensive application materials, waive fees and arrange for testing in the prison.

The state of California does not license drug and alcohol counselors and CAADAC is one of 10 organizations in California that provide certification, CAADAC spokeswoman Rebekah Gray said.

CAADAC has the strictest requirements of all 10 organizations for its candidates, including 4,000 hours of internship training, Gray said.

Receiving CAADAC certification is a significant achievement, she said, as "We are very particular about who we certify."

Messick said he's excited about the new program and hopes inmate-run counseling services can expand to serve even the shortest-term prisoners, those in the so-called Reception Center, who may be at San Quentin for less than six months.

With the history of volunteer support at San Quentin, he's also not concerned about the program running dry. The Bay Area is a rich resource for the prison because there are many residents here who "just believe in people," he said.

Besides, if "we show results, we'll get funding," he added.

"San Quentin's trying to be the flagship here," he said. "We've led the way."

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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