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Courts and Crime

Inmates Help Each Other in Peer Recovery Program

Susan Sharon
Darren Ripley, Alliance for Addiction Recovery leading class at the Maine Correctional Center.

Inmates at the Maine State Prison in Warren and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham have a new resource to help them maintain their sobriety: their peers. 

Recently, 19 inmates at both facilities underwent training in a 30-hour course to become peer recovery coaches. The idea is to reduce recidivism by connecting them to mentors and support both inside and outside the prison walls.

Most of the women who wind up at the Maine Correctional Center have a problem with drugs. Using drugs. Selling drugs. Committing burglaries or other crimes to get more drugs. It’s a vicious cycle that Carrissa Butkewicz of Waterville says she knows well. Addicted to opioids, Butkewicz was originally charged with aggravated attempted murder in connection with a 2014 stabbing. She eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

“I’ve been locked up for 20 months now. I am recovered, or recovering, clean for awhile,” says Butkewicz. “I got a 15-year, all but 7 year sentence so I have a lot of time to work on myself.”

As part of that work Butkewicz says she got serious about her sobriety and about helping other women stay sober, too. She’s one of the first graduates of the Peer Recovery Program.

During the 30-hour course Butkewicz and other women learn to identify some of the barriers to recovery. They discuss ethical issues that may arise for coaches, strategies for taking care of themselves and supporting others and how and when to share their own personal stories of recovery. Darren Ripley of the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery is the program facilitator. He says one thing a recovery coach is not is a sponsor.


Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Carrissa Butkewicz (right), one of the first graduates of the Peer Recovery Program.

“A recovery coach is a motivator, a mentor, a cheerleader,” says Ripley. “They are a resource broker. They respect all pathways of recovery. They’re there to listen to the recoveree.”

The coaches will eventually be matched with women prisoners who are looking for recovery support that goes beyond regular internal meetings of Alcoholics and Narcotic Anonymous at MCC and extends to the communities in which they’ll be released. Their coaches will help link them up. Kathy Tupper, who still has four years remaining on her sentence, says many women worry about how they’ll cope on the outside.

“Because they have no idea where they’re gonna go, how they’re gonna stay sober and what they’re gonna do,” says Tupper.

And when someone with a substance use disorder is released from jail or prison she or he is often at risk for relapse and even overdose. That’s because prisoners typically don’t choose to become sober when they land in a jail cell. There’s just no other option. And without a firm grounding in recovery, without opioid replacement medication, counseling, and a strong support system, they’re vulnerable when they get out. Carissa Butkewicz says in the past year she’s lost three friends who served time with her at the Kennebec County Jail.

“One passed away two days after she got released,” Butkewicz says. “The other one two weeks and then Ashley passed away a month after she got released. All from heroin.”


Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Andrea Sloan (right), women's industries supervisor, and Amandalee Ayala (center).

“Ashley” is Ashley Rideout who was interviewed by Maine Public Radio at the Kennebec County Jail last year for a story about legislation to reduce penalties for heroin possession in small amounts and increase funding for treatment. Rideout described how her felony convictions, all fueled by her heroin addiction, made it nearly impossible to find work.

“I’ve literally been turned down by McDonalds for having the felonies that I have,” said Rideout during the interview last year. “And that’s hard because I have children and that’s the biggest thing because I want to work.”

Rideout was just 28 years old when she died just a few months after that interview. She leaves behind two young daughters. Butkewicz says the loss of friends like these is what inspired her to become a peer recovery coach.

Says Butkewicz, “I’m sick of losing people. I’m sick of seeing it in the news. Another one gone. Another child without a mother or father and I don’t want that for my kids. I don’t want to leave my kids behind.”

Andrea Sloan supervises women’s industries at the Windham Correctional Center. She went through the peer recovery training with the inmates and will be serving as their facilitator going forward.

“I’ve worked here for almost nine years so I’ve learned a lot in those nine years but this has just taught me a lot about some of the struggles that these ladies have gone through,: says Sloan. “This class is wonderful. It’s a gift to have done it.”


Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Chrissy Destefano

To avoid returning to prison Darren Ripley says former inmates in recovery will need a supportive family, employment, transportation, treatment and hope. It’s a tall order. But on the last day of their class at MCC the ten graduates of the program say they feel good about themselves.

Chrissy Destefano of Lewiston is 32 years old and has been incarcerated four times over the past dozen years for crimes associated with her heroin addiction. She says she’s been sober for two years. But this time recovery was a choice. And so was becoming a recovery coach. For the first time in her life, Destefano says she feels like she’s not a failure.

Says Destefano, “It is a wicked achievement. I’m so excited that I finished it. I’m just joyful that I can help others.”