Prison-based Recovery Advocacy (The San Quentin Story)


Eric Brode Van Dyke

The stage is set for a recovery-focused advocacy and peer support movement within the U.S. prison system. The mass incarceration of drug offenders in recent decades, the growth of prison-based addiction treatment, the growth and diversification of prison-based recovery mutual aid, increased disillusionment with incarceration as a policy strategy of addiction containment, and the rise of grassroots recovery community organizations in local U.S. communities have all been part of this incubation process. There is a growing critical mass of people in correctional institutions who are initiating and sustaining addiction recovery and who are pursuing service to others as part of their recovery processes. Leaders are rising to articulate ideas and launch programs that address the particular needs and aspirations of people seeking recovery within the shadow of the criminal justice system. It is my prediction that this movement in the years ahead will exert a major influence on the larger recovery advocacy movement in the U.S. and beyond. Like its community-based counterparts, prison-based recovery advocacy will begin with individuals and small institutional groups that will then forge connections with other institutions and kindred spirits within local communities. In short, dozens and then hundreds of small stories will form the mosaic of a larger collective story of considerable import. Here's just one of those small stories.

In 2005, Dennis Pratt and Rusty Trunzo, inmates at California's San Quentin Prison, developed a vision. Seeking their own recovery from addiction, they shared their desire to one day become addiction counselors. Their discussions continued and led to explorations of resources outside the prison that might make such a dream a reality. Through numerous volunteers and such community resources as the Christian Institute, which operated a school for addiction counselors, a program was initiated to train selected inmates to become addiction counselors. Those enrolling in this program did so with two goals: 1) providing addiction counseling services to persons residing at San Quentin in need of such help, and 2) building credentials that would aid their continued recoveries and facilitate their employment in addiction treatment following their release from prison. To facilitate the former, they founded the Addiction Recovery Counseling (ARC) program at San Quentin--a 16-week treatment program led by trained peer counselors. (The ARC program services span 48 educational classes, individual and group counseling, linkage to recovery mutual aid groups, re-entry planning, ongoing aftercare, and post-release follow-up and support.) To facilitate the latter, they assured that the counselor training program developed at San Quentin would lead to certification by the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (CAADAC). In the years that followed, many inmates entered recovery through the ARC, the ARC program was replicated in other prisons, and many counselors were certified who later worked as addiction counselors when they re-entered the community.

Many individuals and organizations (e.g., Support 4 Recovery--a grassroots recovery community organization, Seeds of Sophia, and Options Recovery Services), along with key administrators and staff at San Quentin, lent their support to this effort. But from the beginning, this project was initiated and sustained through a process of peers supporting peers, fulfilling one of the mantras of the recovery advocacy movement: Recovery by any means necessary under any circumstances!

Secular, spiritual, and religious recovery mutual aid groups will continue to expand within the U.S. prison system as will other programs of peer recovery support. But a more radicalized approach to recovery is also coming in which indigenous leaders will castigate those individuals, industries, and institutions that profit from addiction and call for recovery as a political as well as personal act--an act of collective liberation as well as personal redemption. Make no mistake, that day is coming.