Newly credentialed peer recovery coach Sarah Jaskowiak speaks with a recovering addict on Friday at the Rockville Correctional Facility. Indiana Department of Correction photo
Newly credentialed peer recovery coach Sarah Jaskowiak speaks with a recovering addict on Friday at the Rockville Correctional Facility. Indiana Department of Correction photo

“You wouldn’t think that you would see freedom in prison, but I have seen so much freedom here,” said Hali Furr, director of addiction recovery services at the Rockville Correctional Facility.

She was speaking specifically of 19 women who have been trained and credentialed as the first incarcerated female peer recovery coaches in Indiana history.

During a graduation celebration ceremony on Friday, they were awarded their credentials, which will allow them to find work as peer recovery coaches upon their release from Rockville.

Another received her certification in absentia, as she had already been released.

“Their recovery is just insane,” Furr marveled. “It’s a transformation inside and out and it’s absolutely beautiful to watch.”

“We’ve had an amazing partnership with the Indiana Department of Corrections to utilize people’s experience of not only recovery of substance abuse but also recovery from the justice system,” said Justin Beattey, vice president of education and credentialing for Mental Health America of Indiana.

“As we know with people upon reentry, they have a lot of barriers to go through,” he added. “One of the biggest pieces is not only being able to work with people within the facility so they can have someone to talk to with that specific lived experience, it’s also they have an employable credential when they come out. … They can walk into that situation [seeking employment] with much more confidence.”

Many believe that addicts should not be punished for their addictions but offered the option of undergoing recovery counseling. Beattey and Furr believe this is a huge stride for correctional facilities to embrace that goal.

“For a lot of times, there’s very much a punitive approach, and not really much of a look at what happens post-incarceration,” Beattey said. “One of the things that’s really forward-thinking about the Indiana Department of Corrections, they’re looking at how do we create a more productive citizen when they walk out … of using people’s personal lived experience on the peer recovery side.”

“[Women] are very few and far between who come into prison who have not had a substance abuse issue,” Furr said. “Their charges are the outcome of their substance abuse.”

Furr had been working for four years to initiate a program to train incarcerated women in the peer recovery coaching program before finally securing the grant to fund it.

“We knew this would be a great opportunity for the women here, so we were excited that we could do this before their release,” she said.

It was an emotional ceremony for the 19 women, who went from smiling broadly upon receiving their certificates to passing tissues among one another as they wept while considering their accomplishments.

“I’m glad you took the pictures before we all cried,” said Christina Greathouse to a round of laughter.

Jessica Skeens, an addict since the age of 15 from the Muncie area, wept as she recalled her life’s journey.

“I was dead,” she said. “I wasn’t living my life. I was in misery and hurt everybody around me. … Where I am now, I want to help other people to not have that same experience. I want to share the beauty of recovery with others in the hopes that they can find life.”

Skeens added, “When they offered me the opportunity to help other people, I just thought it was a beautiful thing to do that.”

Robin Kraemer of Rosedale, who has been an addict for 40 years, recalled, “I used addiction to cover up a lot of pain and a lot of trauma in my life. It just carried over day after day after day. I want to be able to open up my heart to show people there is life beyond addiction.” Her goal, she said, “is to start with teenage addiction because addiction starts so young in our society. I want to show them that there’s more out there than prison, more out there than drugs, that they can have a future ahead of them.”

Jessica Olson of Columbus, an addict of 16 years, was sober for five years before relapsing.

“I wish I would have had someone coaching me through the process — it would have made things a lot easier,” she said. “I wouldn’t have felt alone. I just want to truly give back what has been given so freely to me.”

As with so many, childhood trauma and abuse led to Olson’s addiction.

“You can take the drugs and the alcohol away and those are just the symptom — you still have the issues underlying those things,” she said. “I felt like I was alone and no one understood me throughout so much of my life. … Until we truly heal from those underlying issues, we are never going to be able to stay sober and in recovery.”

Natashia Jackson of Madison, a 10-year addict, said her role as a single mother complicated her problems.

“Where I went, my son came, which is not always great,” she said. “I wish somebody had been alongside me helping me and my child.” Her son is staying with a cousin; when she is released in a few months, she will be able to reunite with him.

“I’ve always wanted to help other people, I just didn’t know how,” Jackson said. When she heard about the peer recovery coaching training, she was ready to dive in.

“I had no idea what I was doing at the time, I just went with it,” she said. “I didn’t know the magnitude of what this certification meant. I got in and got my hands dirty and got the training and realized, ‘This is it, this is what I wanted to do.’” Mindy Butcher of Jay County was serving her second stint of incarceration.

“Something that’s been a personal struggle — growing up and not feeling good enough or feeling abandoned — caused me to lean into things and people that were not always good for me,” she said.

But Butcher added, “This service has been able to take all the things that I have went through to turn around in a positive way. I’ve been able to help people inside of here and [help people see] you should be accepting of everybody.”

“I’ve been feeling really emotional all day because this is something we’ve been waiting for for so long,” Furr said. “We’ve worked very hard to instill in these women that there is hope and when you work with these women you see so much intelligence. It’s just so sad that this is a disease, when addiction goes too far.” Helping them, she added, “fuels me.”

But the women also deserve praise for accepting responsibility and seeking help, she added.

“Even though it is prison, it is what you make it,” Furr said.

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