Working on recovery on the inside

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Hope can be hard to come by for Patricia Branley but while attending a recent Turning Point training for recovery coaches, she learned of a program available to incarcerated people in all six correctional facilities. She has now encouraged her son, who is expected to remain in jail for approximately two more years, to continue talking with a coach who approached him.

"As a parent, it gives me hope," said Branley, who lives in Wardsboro

and has watched her son deal with addiction for the last nine years. "You have to start working on your stuff some time. You have to work on the underlying issues of your addiction and your pain. You have to work through it."

About two years ago, the Vermont Department of Corrections began a peer-run coaching program inside correctional facilities. It was initially based off a pilot program created by a Pennsylvania company funded through a United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant.

Last year's training involved getting feedback from inmates about had been most effective about the program and what they would like to see going forward, said Annie Ramniceanu, addiction and mental health systems director for the department.

Her department worked with the Vermont Recovery Network in further developing the program, which is facilitated by a staff member inside each of the six facilities. The facilitators keep a schedule of coaching sessions so inmate coaches know about requests to see them.

As of last week, more than 11,500 coaching sessions had been held. Ramniceanu called the number "astonishing."

Coaches are trained to detect "basic symptoms and mental health conditions," and help other inmates "address any stigmas or mistaken beliefs," said Ramniceanu. They are expected to use their lived experience to relate to the inmates and refer those displaying suicidal behavior to help. They also are trained to be knowledgeable about substance use disorders and can offer support.

Ramniceanu said sessions are terminated if someone is "inappropriately aggrandizing their crime or inappropriately trying to manipulate the coach." Such incidents are to be reported to the staff liaison.

The program is about to be expanded to include a re-entry group involving a coach inside the jails and a coach from a nearby recovery network.

"It will be a support group for people who are nearing their release to discuss the emotions and the situations they may be facing pending their release," said Ramniceanu.

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Inmates will receive a 108-page resource guide on their tablets. Information is taken from the United Way website.

The hope is that outside coaches will give inmates advice and tips on how to stay out of jail. Visits to Turning Point recovery centers will be encouraged.

Branley said she was "amazed and thankful" to learn about the coaching.

"It's so meaningful for me to know that there are programs in all of the facilities for people who really need someone to talk to, someone who has been where they are, and it gave me hope as a parent," she said. "You have to hope your family member uses the tool."

It is important, she said, for people to know recovery is possible.

Ramniceanu looks at the programming as part of a culture-changing movement. She said the department is trying to "push out other health and wellness initiatives" through the coaches. She considers them "ambassadors" to such efforts.

Body and mind researchers have asked coaches at Southern State Correctional Facility to provide input, Ramniceanu said. Information about ways to manage health via exercises will be shared on the inmates' tablets. The hope is to have coaches lead groups in related classes.

"We're trying to think big," Ramniceanu said. "We realize, as a system, we're all interconnected."

She said corrections officers are saying the programming has helped to make their lives easier.

"When you approach from a peer-to-peer position, it's very powerful," she said. "And it's always about instilling hope."

Suzie Walker, director of Turning Point of Windham County in Brattleboro, said Ramniceanu will be visiting her center next month to talk about the programming. Walker is aware of recovery coaches from Turning Point Center of Rutland going to speak with incarcerated individuals.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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