Department of Corrections Continues to Train Certified Peer Specialists

Jul 26, 2013, 15:39 ET from Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Offenders Assisting Offenders to Acclimate to Prison Using Positive Coping Skills

HARRISBURG, Pa., July 26, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Officials at the State Correctional Institution at Dallas, Luzerne County, joined the ranks of other state prisons recently when they celebrated the graduation of 19 offenders who completed the Department of Corrections' Certified Peer Specialist Program.

Certified peer specialists are specially-trained inmates who assist staff in providing direction to other inmates in a housing unit or treatment program setting.

The two-week training consists of 80 hours of instruction, followed by 60 days of on-the-job training in DOC special needs units, where most mentally ill inmates are housed. A requirement of this program is that the certified peer specialist must have had some form of mental health treatment in his/her past.

"We now have more than 230 offenders trained as certified peer specialists providing services to inmates at 13 state prisons," Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. "Who better to work with offenders in our special needs units than individuals who have received some sort of mental health treatment in the past? They can use their personal experiences to educate and ease inmates in the special needs units."

The Certified Peer Specialist Program planning began in December 2010 with a grant received through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. The grant allowed for the payment of a vendor to initially train inmates and pay each certified peer specialists a salary of 41 cents an hour. In September 2012, the grant monies expired, at which time the wages were absorbed into institutional budgets.

The DOC now also has four certified employees who continue to train offenders in this area. The DOC's goal is to expand the program to all state prisons by the end of 2014, with the exception of the Quehanna Boot Camp due to the transitory nature of that facility's inmate population.

Approximately 21 percent of the DOC's inmates are either monitored for or are actively being treated for mental health issues. Using certified peer specialists on the special needs units provides those inmates with experiential insight as well as providing role models in the area of recovery wellness. It also is believed that certified peer specialists' work will result in less disruptive behaviors and increased stability.

"The use of certified peer specialists in our special needs units is another example of the enhancements we are making to our mental health system within the Department of Corrections," Wetzel said.

In addition to this program helping offenders in special needs units, the certified peer specialists also benefit by being certified in a life-sustaining job skill he or she can use upon release from prison. Jobs in this field have been expanding, and many agencies hire peer specialists, in such areas as residential programs, consumer and family satisfaction teams, advocacy organizations and drop-in centers.

The state Department of Public Welfare has established certified peer specialists as a civil service position with the Pennsylvania Civil Service Commission to promote job creation in the private sector.

State prisons that utilize certified peer specialists are: Benner Township, Cambridge Springs, Camp Hill, Dallas, Frackville, Graterford, Muncy, Pittsburgh, Retreat, Rockview, Smithfield, Somerset and Waymart.

Media contact: Susan McNaughton, 717-728-4025

SOURCE Pennsylvania Department of Corrections