Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Graduates First Peer Recovery Specialists 

Inside a classroom at the maximum-security Jessup Correctional Institution, about halfway between the beltways surrounding Baltimore and Washington, DC, a group of men who had struggled with their past were beginning to realize a powerful truth: that their lived experiences could not only be used as a transformative tool to change their trajectory, but to also change the lives of others. And, key to it all: they’re not alone in their struggle. 

It’s a lesson they’re learning thanks to an incredible program called Peer Recovery run by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and supported through the efforts of the Maryland Department of Labor.  
“People are learning from each other’s similar struggles," says Jessup Correctional Institution Social Worker Catherine Abrams, a key player in this landmark program. “As a result, we’re already starting to become more of a ‘community’ here and experience real change.” 
The Secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services talks about Peer Recovery with a sense of urgency. “Our job is to change lives,” says Robert Green, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “We absolutely must give incarcerated individuals a chance to change, and an opportunity to succeed when they go home. That’s the best way to protect public safety. And, Peer Recovery is a huge contributor to that goal.”  
The idea is to use “lived experience” as a tool for healing: the concept that ultimately, one’s own struggles and experiences mesh with the similar conditions of others, until everyone realizes they’re not alone, and that healing and change are truly possible. With an entire group of people suddenly attuned to the inescapable fact that everybody present has gone through similar experiences, the lines of communication burst open, and men who may have long felt isolated have a new perspective. 
The program falls under the Department's vast allotment of “programs and services designed to transform lives,” says Carolyn Scruggs, the Department’s Assistant Secretary whose purview includes education, healthcare, programming, and re-entry.
In June, the first forty incarcerated men graduated as Peer Recovery Specialists in a ceremony that was a true celebration. Several family members attended and were thrilled to see the men’s renewed spirit of change. Top-level Public Safety leaders also attended to show support. All of the participants got certificates of completion—-but more importantly, they got a significant boost in self esteem and a sense of real accomplishment.
“The graduates will complete 500 hours of field work to prepare for their certification exam,” says Amanda Cram, Director of Social Work for the Department. “This is a true milestone.”
With that certification, the forty men instantly graduate to an even bigger role: helping hundreds of other men overcome their own demons.
“To know that somebody else knows what you’re going through, that somebody won’t put you down because they’re going through it too…It’s amazing,” says Mike, an incarcerated man who’s one of the first Peer Recovery graduates.
Adds a fellow Peer Recovery Specialist named Rahman: “As a kid, I used to think l could save the world. I ended up just trying to save myself, and this has taught me that even if I can’t save the world, I can do my part.”
Participants who may have expected the program to chip gently through the anguish and stigma of convictions, poor decisions, and daily prison strife, have instead found that Peer Recovery is a powerful tool against years of pent-up emotions, tearing down walls of non-communication.
“Once they know they feel safe,” says Rahman the Peer Recovery Specialist, “they’re willing to let it out. Everybody wants to be ‘relevant.’ And we make them be heard and feel ‘relevant.’”
The program features confidential 90-minute group sessions that so far have served close to 400 men.
“The men started interacting with each other,” says Abrams, the social worker. “And now we’re a real community here at JCI.”
“It gives the incarcerated person tools to make better decisions,” says Bettie Harris, Assistant Warden of Jessup Correctional Institution. “They can have a more positive outcome when they go home. We want them to be successful returning citizens.”  
“This is a very deliberate and intentional focus by the Department,” says Secretary Robert Green. “We are at our very essence a Department that cares about people. Human beings have value, and even in the wake of past circumstances a person can make a meaningful contribution to the well being of society.”