Certified Peer Specialists in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

By Lynn A. Patrone, MHE, Forensic Mental Health Advocate, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) leadership is dedicated to returning individuals to their community doing better than they were when they entered prison. In the August 2017 GAINS e-newsletter, I shared about the PADOC’s Certified Peer Support (CPS) Program, which trains individuals incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons to become certified peer support specialists. Because we have made an investment in the skills we expect of a certified peer specialist and because of the impact they have on the people incarcerated in our correctional facilities, we are proud to share the growth of the CPS program.

In May 2019, the PADOC received two innovation awards from the Addiction Policy Forum for our innovative work around improving the lives of the incarcerated people under our care. The Addiction Policy Forum is a nationwide 501(c)(3) dedicated to “eliminating addiction as a major health problem.” This was the first time a department of corrections received not one but two awards from the organization. The awards were granted for our very own CPS program and for the PADOC Medication-Assisted Treatment program. In recognition of the invaluable support provided to people with co-occurring disorders by CPS, PADOC received an Addiction Policy Forum 2019 Innovation Now Award.

CPS Certifications

The CPS program has been made successful through the implementation of various initiatives, such as peer-led support groups. One such group uses the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP®) approach, developed by the Copeland Center and well known to the mental health advocacy community. Over the past 18 months, through a collaborative approach with state correctional institution (SCI) leadership, we trained and mentored over 88 CPSs as WRAP® facilitators. Every SCI now has its own WRAP® facilitators.

This initiative set the groundwork for the newly certified facilitators to bring an evidence-based wellness program to the entire population of people who are incarcerated. As WRAP® facilitators, the CPSs are leading seminars on a routine basis. In fact, the first group certified had a waiting list of over 125 individuals eager to attend a seminar. Not only does this initiative benefit those currently incarcerated in the PADOC, but it also offers the CPSs who reenter the community an additional certification that will enhance their employability.

The PADOC has collaborated with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Office of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services to ensure that DOC CPSs are afforded the same credentialing as CPSs in the community. This is yet another example of how we value the program and the people in it, and of our commitment to promoting their employability upon returning to the community.

CPS Events

Many of the CPSs have used their unique skills to create mental health awareness campaigns inside the prisons. CPSs have also organized events featuring external speakers and put on original stage plays. CPSs write the scripts, leveraging talents such as singing, dancing, drama, and art, while ensuring the play conveys a message of hope, responsibility, and holistic wellness.

The CPSs’ dedication and support for mental health bring hope in prison, which extends into the community. CPSs have facilitated many fundraisers that provide donations to mental health organizations. This is a testament to the passion they have not only for mental wellness but for making positive prosocial changes in their own lives by helping others.

Suicide Prevention Awareness

CPSs are trained in suicide prevention and are called upon to support individuals who may be in crisis or at risk of going into crisis. CPS events have included walks focusing on suicide prevention and awareness behind the walls of a prison. Dedicated CPSs have replicated what communities do to promote awareness, walking with their peers around the grounds of the prison and bringing their efforts to their housing units by talking about the importance of suicide prevention. We often receive reports from security staff and treatment staff about CPSs who have been able to intervene and assist in a situation that was beginning to escalate. Supplementing the treatment team’s work with CPS support has been very beneficial and helps to achieve positive outcomes. Not only is the CPS able to share the lived experience of a person approaching crisis, he or she can relate to their status as being incarcerated and gain trust and provide support where staff may not be able.

Animal-assisted Therapy

Another unique feature—SCI Chester has a CPS dog! The dog is an official part of the CPS team and participates in peer support offerings when appropriate. SCI Chester has realized such results from having a CPS dog that other SCIs are now vying to get one too. SCI Waymart will be recruiting two dogs to offer therapeutic benefits, supporting SCI Waymart’s work as a certified inpatient mental health hospital for individuals under custody who meet the commitment criteria.

On the Horizon

What’s next for the DOC CPSs? As we continue to expand and improve in the innovative and alternative wellness options we provide to individuals, select SCIs will be identifying CPSs to become certified as yoga instructors. Once certified as instructors, CPSs will be able to teach yoga classes and improve the quality of life for all involved. Stay tuned for further advancements in the PADOC CPS program!


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Behavioral health, Criminal justice, Jails & Prisons, Treatment courts, Wellness