Editor’s Note: If you’ve ever needed help but weren’t sure where to turn, then you know how important just one trustworthy guide can be. This blog post is part of an occasional series called “Connection, Trust, and Recovery,” by Michele Easter. Certified Peer Support Specialists (CPSS) have lived experience of the struggles they are helping people with, such as incarceration, substance use, or mental illness. These experiences enable CPSS to build trusting relationships and model recovery for people who might have trouble identifying goals and advocating for themselves.
By Michele Easter
In this installment, I feature CPSS who helped incarcerated women by visiting them while in jail (known as “in-reach”) and continued to provide support post-release. This support can turn a person’s life around, if they are ready for change and have the resources they need to succeed.
I interviewed Sandra Lassiter, a CPSS who is also the Director of the Durham non-profit organization Stick and Stay Prevention. Lassiter manages transitional homes for people in recovery, facilitates recovery-oriented groups or “peer support circles,” and helps people engage in services and treatment. Before COVID, when in-person visits to jail were still allowed, she provided peer support to women detained in the Durham County Detention Facility. This work grew out of the Welcome Home program for prison reentry, led by the City of Durham’s Innovation Team.
To illustrate how jail in-reach peer support can make a difference, Lassiter invited two other people with lived experience to join in the interview: Wanda Brooks, who benefited from Lassiter’s peer support while in jail and who now aspires to be a CPSS as well; and Henrietta McNeill, a CPSS who previously worked at Wellness City in Durham and is now collaborating with Lassiter to develop new programs at Stick and Stay Prevention.
Before COVID, Lassiter was allowed to visit women at the Durham County Detention Facility (jail) about once a week through the Welcome Home program. Detained women learned of her through word of mouth.
“I met Sandra in 2019 when I was incarcerated,” Brooks explained. “A lady I was incarcerated with was already seeing her, and she gave her my information. I needed help with talking to my lawyer, getting my personal affairs in order in case I was going to be there for a while. After that I was seeing her on a weekly basis and discovered she had a women’s house for people in recovery. We built a relationship where she put me in her women’s house, and I stayed there till I got my own apartment.”
Lassiter noted that while Brooks was in jail, she “was stressed because she couldn’t get in contact with her attorney.” After Lassiter contacted the attorney on Brooks’s behalf, communication improved.
McNeill explained, “it is very hard when you have lawyers you can’t reach, and you have limited access to a telephone. And you show up in court and you’ve never expressed yourself to your lawyer: this man’s going to defend me, and he knows nothing about my situation! That’s very scary. A lot of people get extended time based on that, or their challenges get ignored because they have never been addressed.”
Lassiter assisted Brooks in many other ways too, both before and after release: she arranged contact with Brooks’s family; provided encouragement, motivation, and positive affirmation; visited more frequently if she learned Brooks was “acting out” in jail; attended court; accompanied her to in-jail substance use program meetings (STARR); and, after release, picked her up from jail and took her to dinner; provided a room in a transitional home; included her in peer support circles (which Brooks eventually led herself); helped Brooks write a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) to identify triggers and strategies to stay healthy; successfully helped navigate a disability housing application; and supported her to follow housing requirements, such as negative drug screens.
“Sandra helped my life do a whole 180 and get me on my feet,” said Brooks. She credits Lassiter for an earlier release, because a judge approved of their post-release plan that included housing and ongoing support by a CPSS. Brooks said that she had been homeless for 15 months before entering jail, and has lived in her own apartment since October 2020.
Central to Brooks’s story was the establishment of trusting relationships with others who had been through something similar.
“I have had a jail experience, I know that experience,” said McNeill. “It’s very difficult, especially if you are already living a difficult life, and that added stress just pushes most people over the edge.”
A CPSS with personal experience of a “difficult life”— whether it be trauma, mental illness, substance use, sex work, homelessness, disconnection from family, and/or incarceration — is in a unique position to help others such as Brooks to turn their lives around. This is the foundation of peer support.
“It’s about people who have lived experience, who have had challenges… and have overcome them, built resiliency, learned a new language that … helps them relive and redirect and redesign their life,” McNeill explained. “So that’s what recovery is, redesigning — ‘re’ stands for redesign — you have the option to redesign your life, to be different from what the original life was, the discarded life. You can take those old pieces and redesign a new puzzle.”
All three women agreed that peer support begins with listening. According to Lassiter, “when people are struggling they are disconnected, they just need support, they need somebody to listen to them. The main thing is just to have someone to listen. They never had anybody, and after they build that trust with you, most of the time you get to the root of their problem, and they become open-minded and willing to share exactly where they are, so they can come to the solution.”
McNeill noted that it’s rare to find someone who will listen and support someone whose life is very difficult, which she compared to a muddy road: “it’s always easy to get someone to walk with you on a paved street but not on a muddy road. That’s why I find Sandra so amazing, because she will go in the muddy streets, the muddy places.”
Connecting to a CPSS helps people believe they can also recover.
“Because of the shame, the things that happen when you’re in the streets, when you’re living that type of life, it takes so much from your self-esteem,” said McNeill. “And to see someone come and stand before you, and you have honor for them, and you feel like you want what they have and hear their story, it’s very empowering.”
“Out there—in the streets – you don’t see recovery, you see everyone in their worst part of their lives and you become accustomed to those things because you don’t see life in any other different way,” McNeill added.
After release, people can participate in Lassiter’s peer support circles. I asked her how this program began, and she said, “I created it from them, because I know when they got out they would need some kind of support. You can’t put people out of the street, and leave them. And every one of them agreed, they wanted to be a part of it. I said, ‘when you get out, don’t just run off,’ everybody had my number, they called me whenever they needed me. And I answered.”
All agreed that in peer support circles, the sharing of stories in a safe space builds trust, bravery, connection, and self-esteem. They acknowledged that some experiences are very difficult to share: “I was always told I’ll never be good for anything except sex, and now I’m just doing sex, and I need to use drugs to have the sex, in order to do what I’m good at.”
But telling the story— “having the hurt be heard” — helps the teller and the listener alike to see beyond “pain and shame” and envision and build a new life. Peer support circles “help people to express themselves, to recognize their needs, and to be able to talk and ask someone to help with their needs.”
I was moved and struck by many things in this interview. One of these was the way that CPSS help people learn or re-learn how to interact with honesty, openness, encouragement, and trust, and that these relationships create supportive communities that help people heal.
By contrast, as McNeill described, “there is no trust in the streets — the people you get high with and hang with every day, they know in order to maintain your drug abuse, you can’t be trusted, because you do things that’s not trustworthy. So you lie, steal and you cheat in that world, and everyone in that world is aware of that and accustomed to that, they accept that.”
With each new relationship and peer support circle, CPSS are building social trust — and a better society that will benefit everyone.
Another thing that stood out to me is that after months and years of being homeless or incarcerated, people can forget basic life skills. In the transitional home, Brooks learned again how to cook, clean, and cooperate with housemates. Practicing such activities also helps people learn to value themselves.
As McNeill put it, “I had to learn how to take care of my daily needs, how to redesign my daily maintenance, to learn how to take care of myself, and learn that I mattered for me, if no one else. To learn that is a huge, huge concept to your recovery. When you learn that ‘I am important to my life.’”
Last, people re-entering society may have a strong wish to change their lives but may be so overwhelmed or hopeless that they sometimes give up. To have a real chance, they need not only resources and services, but also help and support to engage in them. Making the necessary changes requires courage and strength: to be honest about problems you are ashamed of; to ask for what you need even though the answer might be ‘no’; to try a program or treatment even though you might fail and then be criticized; to share personal information with strangers you are not sure you can trust; to revisit painful memories; and to work with institutions that may have disappointed you in the past.
Without real ongoing support that actually meets people where they are, we should not be surprised if people go back to what they know. Peer support specialists can play a crucial role in supporting people to identify what they need and help them to make changes that will “stick and stay.”
Michele Easter is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University’s School of Medicine. She is also part of the Behavioral Health Core at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.