Corrections were made on May 25, 2023: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Michael Vaughan’s name as Michael Vaughn. In addition, Desmond Haneef Perry’s photo was mislabeled as Michael Vaughan. We apologize for the errors and will strengthen our editorial process to prevent such errors from happening again.

Peer support and mutual aid groups for substance misuse have a long history of helping people achieve and maintain recovery. Historically, peer-based recovery support provided an accessible alternative to the oftentimes exclusionary, stigmatizing, or unavailable treatment for alcohol use disorder in professional systems of care.[1] While medical and behavioral health treatment has drastically improved, models of peer-based support continue to be valuable assets in the recovery field.

Mutual support programs provide a safe space for people to get help from peers who have been through experiences similar to each others’. There are a myriad mutual support and peer-based recovery programs available for a wide variety of needs,[2] including 12-step (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous), faith-based (e.g., Celebrate Recovery), secular (e.g., Secular Sobriety Groups), family-focused (e.g., Al-Anon), and gender-specific (e.g., Women For Sobriety) programs, as well as programs for individuals with co-occurring mental and substance use disorders (e.g., Double Trouble in Recovery) and many more.[3]

One program that continues to grow in popularity and reach in the community and correctional settings is SMART Recovery. SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) Recovery is a transformative program that enables participants to address negative behaviors and overcome substance misuse or other harmful activities.

Tools for Change

SMART Recovery is focused on empowerment and positive change, teaching participants skills to move away from negative behaviors and into healthy and balanced lives. “SMART shifts the locus of control from external factors, such as drugs or alcohol, to a person’s internal strengths,” says Pete Rubinas, acting executive director of SMART Recovery USA. “It helps people develop confidence and competence to live a life free from addiction or addictive behaviors.”

SMART Recovery is a non-religious mutual support program run by a trained facilitator. While it is popular among individuals who misuse substances, SMART is not only for people with Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-5 substance use disorder diagnoses. SMART is helpful for anyone who wants to change unwanted behaviors.

SMART Recovery is built around a four-point program, which participants work through at their own pace during meetings:

  1. Building and maintaining motivation
  2. Coping with urges
  3. Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  4. Living a balanced life

While SMART Recovery alone has not been extensively studied, the program uses elements of many evidence-based approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), motivational enhancement, and other methods. Participants rely on several tools, exercises, and worksheets that address positive self-talk, conducting a cost-benefit analysis of their behaviors, and making a plan for change. Most participants in SMART Recovery groups don’t attend indefinitely. They generally work through the four points and then move on with their lives with their tools to support motivation, coping, and independence from negative behaviors.

Application in Correctional Settings

SMART Recovery is used in many jails and prisons across the United States. InsideOut is SMART Recovery’s 24-week program for prisons. A shorter version, the 12-week InsideOut FAST, is also available to jails. A newer pilot program, Successful Life Skills, includes financial literacy and other life skills and is offered in recovery homes and reentry programs. “We are building ecosystems of SMART across the entire justice continuum,” says Rubinas, “from corrections, to reentry, to the community. These all use the same empowering, life-affirming approach to behavior change.”

SMART Recovery supports using medication-assisted treatment and prescribed psychiatric medication. SMART Recovery integrates with many clinical and behavioral treatments offered in corrections-based substance use disorder programs. The principles of SMART Recovery include encouraging participants to understand all of their treatment and support options and augmenting their SMART Recovery work with therapy, medication, or other mutual support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. “There is no conflict between taking medication for [substance use disorder] or a behavioral health disorder and being part of the SMART community,” says Rubinas. “SMART supports individuals in gaining independence from addictive behaviors through all of the ways that work for them.”

Michael Vaughan, LMHC, and substance use disorder counselor, uses SMART Recovery as part of the mix of services and supports offered in the substance use disorder program at Coconino County Jail in Arizona. With only 90 days available for the program, Vaughan can’t dig deep with participants, but nonetheless, he notes, it can be very effective for some people to focus on one of SMART Recovery’s tools (e.g., The ABCs of REBT). In a short time-period, participants can work through the following components of the ABCs:

  • Activating event (charge) that landed them in jail (e.g., driving under the influence)
  • Beliefs behind that charge (e.g., “I can get away with it,” “I’m not really putting anyone in danger”)
  • Consequences of the beliefs and actions (e.g., jail time, hurting or killing others)
  • Disputing statement (e.g., disputing belief—”I actually can’t get away with it,” “I did put people in danger”)
  • Effective new thinking (e.g., “I should not drink and drive because I could cause harm to myself or others,” “If I didn’t drink and drive, I would still have a driver’s license, and I wouldn’t be in jail”)

“One of the most powerful parts of doing SMART Recovery with my program’s participants is observing their peers talk through their ABCs and begin to think about how they can change their behavior to improve their lives,” says Vaughan. “That can really resonate with someone who has the same challenges.”

While SMART Recovery in carceral settings has not been studied in the United States, research out of Australia found that participation in SMART Recovery programming while incarcerated reduced reconviction for both general and violent crimes.[4]

Supporting a Better Life for Incarcerated Individuals

For Desmond Haneef Perry, PRS, SMART Recovery was an important tool in helping build hope and community among the population of maximum-security prison. Perry, co-founder and manager of peer programs for Rectify Maryland, was incarcerated at Jessup Correctional Institution and other prisons in Maryland until his release in 2022. Having already started a peer-run program at a previous prison, he saw a great need for peer support at Jessup to address the mental health issues and substance misuse he saw among other residents. “Men were dying of overdoses and suicide and living in complete despair,” he says. Working with the prison’s social worker, Catherine Abrams, Perry started a SMART Recovery program at the prison. They quickly trained 40 men in the SMART program, along with training on trauma, motivational interviewing, and adverse childhood experiences. “SMART Recovery was our way to reach the men, build recovery, and begin to change the culture of the prison.”

Perry saw his peers from all identities across the prison become engaged and interested in participating in SMART. “Prison is a very sectarian place,” he notes. “You don’t really go outside of your group. Yet, when we trained our SMART facilitators, this amazing cross-cultural group came together—Christians, Jews, Muslims, straight and gay men all working toward the same goal.” The diversity of the core group helped encourage others to participate. By the time Perry left Jessup, they had expanded to offer SMART Recovery groups 4 days a week to every housing unit and all populations, ranging from people serving long-term sentences to those in intake to those on parole violations, ultimately serving 500 men each week.

SMART Recovery became the basis for much of the other peer programming at the prison. Participants learned about restorative justice, stigma, and conflict resolution. Participants received recognition and awards to celebrate their successes. “We were able to take the elements of SMART and apply it to many other situations in a person’s life,” says Perry. “They could use their tools for behavior change in their interactions with guards, their families, and each other. It changed the institution.”

Learn More: SMART Recovery is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Information about SMART, including facilitator training resources and where to find groups, can be accessed at the SMART Recovery website.

[1] William L. White, Peer-Based Addiction Recovery Support:  History, Theory, Practice, and Scientific Evaluation  (Chicago, IL:  Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services, 2009).

[2] See a full list at Faces & Voices of Recovery’s Mutual Aid Resources page.

[3] This list does not constitute an endorsement of any of these programs.

[4] Chris Blatch, Kevin O’Sullivan, Jordan J Delaney, and Daniel Rathbone, “Getting SMART, SMART Recovery© Programs and Reoffending,” Journal of Forensic Practice 18, no. 1 (January 1, 2016): 3–16,