Substance abuse recovery for inmates

A group of inmates in Arizona Department of Corrections
Dept of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry
Problem Statement

There is a tremendous need among the prison population for substance abuse and recovery services. Yet the level of need far outweighs the capacity and resources that the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry has through formal treatment programs and 12-Step volunteers.

Action Taken

In support of the department’s strategic plan goal to ensure that inmates are prepared for successful reentry, the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry created the Recovery Support Specialist Program, which trains offenders to offer additional substance abuse recovery resources within Arizona prisons. 

In May 2018, personnel from the agency’s Inmate Programs and Reentry Division, with the help of community-based organization Arizona Complete Health, worked to train and certify 20 offenders in the field of substance abuse recovery.

The department has historically utilized inmates for the provision of certain resources, such as maintenance or training inmates in HVAC, plumbing and construction through career and technical education. Through the Recovery Support Specialist Program, inmates are prepared to teach and facilitate groups with other offenders about substance abuse and recovery. 

Certified offenders are tasked with leading groups and teaching methods to their peers on how to remain sober and avoid relapse, as well as how to be a positive influence while incarcerated.

While some may be skeptical of having inmates teach other inmates, the need to address addiction and recovery issues within the prison population requires creative solutions. Peer influence can make a strong positive impact in recovery. This program empowers those who lived through similar hardships to serve as positive models for others. An additional benefit is that Recovery Support Specialist-certified offenders will be able to use their experience and connections after release to secure employment with community organizations that offer substance abuse or mental health programs for recovery, such as Hope Inc. and Community Bridges Inc.


Results & Impact

As of August 2022, the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry has 360 inmates who have been trained and certified as Recovery Support Specialists. With these 360 specialists, the department has been able to expand substance abuse and recovery services capacity to currently serve an additional 728 inmates, with more being enrolled every few weeks. 

To date, the program has had 1,842 inmates successfully complete the classes taught by the Recovery Support Specialists. Of those 1,842 inmates, 760 have been released from custody. Of the 760 released inmates, thus far only 59 have returned to custody.

The Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Therapeutic Community was initiated in June 2021, which staffs 20 Recovery Support Specialists working side by side with Licensed Substance Abuse Counselors to facilitate 520 hours of Intensive Treatment seven to nine months prior to release for high-risk, high-need inmates statewide. Year to date, there have been 210 enrollments, 30 inmates in the first week of orientation, 30 inmates in treatment, 14 inmates in aftercare, 70 program completions, 46 early Senate bill releases, and 22 program removals due to behavioral issues. Year to date, there have been 1,290 UA drug tests conducted for every RSAT client and RSS worker that has ever lived in the community with only three positive UA results (two were for new arrivals, and one for medication reasons).

The Recovery Support Specialist program provided me with vital tools such as documentation and how to abide by HIPAA standards. It gave me confidence inside to run groups, which made the transition out easier because I was not just thrown into running groups. I already had inside knowledge of how things were supposed to run smoothly. With the hours I put in while I was in prison, I began at a new company as a BHT [behavioral health technician].”

“I love being a Recovery Support Specialist because it not only gives me the tools I need in my recovery but for others as well.”

“I love being a Recovery Support Specialist for the RSAT Therapeutic Community because it is creating real change in me and in the clients, and that is so rewarding.”

“Every day, I get to see another man being changed. The RSAT Therapeutic Community is not just classes; it is a life-changing opportunity, and I am proud to be a small part of it.”

“I feel so privileged to be given the opportunity to help others through the RSAT Therapeutic Community. Being a Recovery Support Specialist in the therapeutic community provides me with meaning and purpose.”

— Recovery Support Specialist testimonials