CDCR Prison Prison Policy

Prison Lifers Trained as Drug & Alcohol Counselors


With all the depressing news coming out of Sacramento and Washington D.C.,
it is great to run across a genuine bit of very good news—amazingly enough, from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

HERE’S THE DEAL: This morning the California State Prison at Solano will hold a graduation ceremony for 47 prisoners—41 of them serving life sentences— who have just completed an innovative course of study called the Offender Mentor Certification Program—or OMC—that has allowed them to become officially certified drug and alcohol counselors especially skilled at working with their incarcerated peers.

The newly-minted counselors were each carefully selected. They had to have have at least a high school diploma or GED. An effort was made to make them all—or nearly all—-lifers, with the idea that these are men deeply in need of purpose.

(And there are other reasons for picking lifers, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)

First you need to know that this is no lightweight program. Once selected, the inmate students are put through six months of intensive training, which includes a great deal of group therapy. At the end of six months, they become certified CAADAC counselors. (CAADAC is short for The California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors—a highly respected certificate-conferring program that usually offers its training in local colleges.)

The normal CAADAC course of study is two years., Yet the Solano inmates are expected to master the same material in six months by attending class at least eight hours a day, six days a week, with another four or five hours of study back in their cells.

The hard work has paid off. In addition to their CAADAC certificate, thirty-six of the 47 inmate students— or 77 percent—also passed an international counselor certification exam—a significantly higher pass rate than the average pass rate of 68% for non-inmate counselors-in-training who take the 2-year version of the course at their local state college.

Lt. Cicely Burnett, a spokesperson for Solano, who has also worked around the program as a corrections officer, says she has seen huge changes in the inmates’ behavior and sense of self as they make their way through the training. “I wish they had before and after picture, so you could see it,” she told me Thursday.

The program has been shepherded by Sol Irving,
a former corrections officer turned long-time corrections counselor, who saw a similar program at San Quentin, and wanted to add the lifer component, and try it at Solano . Irving too describes the training as transformative—both for the student inmates and also for the prisoners whom they have now started to counsel.

“Lifers are also often the leaders in the prison population, Irving said, “the ones that the other guys respect.” So if these guys transform, he said, their change tends to resonate outward through the rest of the population in a sort of behavioral wave pattern. (That is the other reason Irving has picked almost exclusively those serving life sentences.)

“I’ve been a peace officer for 30 years,” he told me yesterday. “and a counselor for many years. I’ve seen programs come and go. But I’ve never seen a program that works quite as well as this one.”

Another secret of the project’s success, he said, is that once trained, the inmate/counselors are far more effective as substance abuse peer counselors than the best outside shrinks.

“A lot of these guys have the feeling that they want to give back,” Irving said, “but they don’t now how to it. This program gives them the chance to do that.”

Addiction expert and author, Terence Gorski, who has consulted with the program, agreed. “It is a way to bring a sense of meaning and purpose into the lives of long-term offenders and also to expand by multiples the availability of addiction treatment within correctional facilities without increasing costs. He predicts that the program will make “a tremendous difference” in reducing recidivism.

The full cost of the six month program is $4,000 per inmate. (The course is labor intensive involving instructors from partnering agencies like the US Navy, and a respected Berkeley group called Options Recovery.) But if the CAADAC-trained inmate is able to successfully counsel just one other person well enough to avoid the revolving door back to prison, for every year that parolee is not incarcerated, the state will have saved nearly $48,000 on it’s $4000 investment. If each CAADAC counselor can help two inmates stay out of prison, or three inmates—-well, you can do the math.

According to Irving and others, the program positively affects, not only recidivism rates, but the safety of the prison well.

In June, Solano warden John Haviland told a CDCR publication called Rehabilitation News that he has already perceived a positive affect on the parts of the prison’s inmate population in contact with the trainees. “By the time we reach 200 graduates,” Haviland said, “I’m looking at a serious reduction in violence.”

That, of course, is another potential savings to the taxpayer, said Sol Irving. Prison riots are costly affairs—even the minor ones. Major riots can cost $700,000. A Chino-sized riot costs in the millions.


So with all this nice, upbeat news, here is the bad news:

The corrections budget still has not been passed. In an effort to get the necessary votes, many of the intended cuts are slowly being gutted out of the package, and there will be more gutting.

Since so many cuts are being eliminated, an angry governor and desperate legislators will be looking for some brand new line items to cut in their stead.

The first place legislators are likely to look is in the direction
of co-called discretionary rehabilitative and educational programs.

Like this one.


  • Since liberals want to empty the prisons, add counseling for sex offenders so that things like the following don’t have to continue.

    An 11-year-old California girl kidnapped in 1991 while waiting for a school bus has been found alive, and a convicted sex offender is accused of raping and fathering two children with her while he and his wife held her captive in their backyard.

    The Garridos were arrested Wednesday after Phillip Garrido raised suspisions of campus police at the University of California, Berkeley.

    “None of the children have ever been to school, they’ve never been to a doctor,” Kollar said. “They were kept in complete isolation in this compound.”

    Garrido was on lifetime parole and his arrest raises questions about how closely parolees are monitored.

  • Credit and kudos to the crew at Options Recovery in Berkeley, who actually ran this program. They and Claire-Elizabeth DeSophia started it at San Quentin, then were invited to do the same thing in Solano, where it is getting a lot more press. These men do amazing work, and several from SQ have left and are pursuing counseling careers. Sadly the contract ended 6/30/09 at both prisons and was not renewed.

  • Hey Woody, yeah, isn’t that story incredible? I received a very early announcement about it so I was tracking it all day yesterday.

    Allyson thanks so much for the note about Options Recovery. I meant to add them in last night, but the story was getting awfully long and I simply forgot. I’ve done it now.

    If I’m not mistaken (although I may be), the difference at Solano is the lifer component. And you say they’re contract hasn’t been renewed at SQ? What can the CDCR be thinking????

  • The lifer component is the same at San Quentin, although now there is a move afoot to move a lot of our lifers out to other prisons and bring in Close B custody men in their place. These men have a mandatory 8 pm count, which would preclude them from some evening programming, which is a shame. Several of our addiction counselors are on the list to be moved to other prisons. The only good that can come of this that I can think of is that perhaps they will get the program replicated where they are, although with no more funding I’m not sure how that can happen.

  • So why don’t these programs continue? I think the major reason (and it’s not budget – just look at what does get funded)is that corrections folks do not hold strongly to the belief that prisoners can (and do) change when they are involved in relevant, authentic, and sustained efforts. Good news – the answer is simple, the bad news – the answer is simple.

  • Please note: Options Recovery Services had absolutely NOTHING to do with creating or running the first-ever-anywhere training of professionally trained and certified drug/alcohol addiction counselors at San Quentin nor with creating the first professional addiction treatment program at San Quentin.

    When the founding non-profit I created and headed, Full Circle Addiction Recovery Services, had to stop its work at San Quentin in Sept ’08, after over 3.5 years of a burnout pace with little to no funding, Options took over as the sponsoring organization, in name only. The wonderful volunteer who took over running the ARC treatment program Full Circle created at San Quentin months before, when I had to turn it over to him in order to train a new class of counselors, continues today, as an unpaid volunteer. Hopefully, someday CDCR/Div of Addiction Recovery Services (DARS) will fund the training and treatment programs Full Circle created at San Quentin and expand both to full-time programs, working with another, new competent and respected outside organization. (Full Circle is no longer interested.)

    The vision, enormous amounts of hard work by Full Circle and the first class of San Quentin inmate students, and the models Full Circle created at San Quentin were the impetus for the Solano Prison project. Other prisons across California and the nation have expressed interest in creating similar programs.

    Claire-Elizabeth DeSophia, MA MFT
    Executive Director
    Full Circle Addiction Recovery Services

    Just needing to set the record straight.

  • Thank you for the clarification, Claire-Elizabeth. Both Solano and San Quentin seem like enormously worthwhile and visionary programs. It is hard to imagine why San Quentin is not fully funded. But thank you for the work you have done and are doing.

    I’d love to know more about what you plan for the future.

    Please email me if you feel so inclined.

  • What I like most about this post is that it has twice as many pictures as other ones. It just doesn’t have pictures of drug users and alcoholics to be rehabilitated.

    Those counselors should also concentrate on victims – especially Children Of Alcoholics.

  • This is a great program. I pray that they can help other addict not go back to prison. I found out that I wanted to be a counselor while doing a 12 year prison sentence. I’ve been clean and sober for 14 years, out of prison for almost 5 years and working at for almost 4 years. I really think that this will work. Oh, and Woody the guy you are talking about is a rapist and kidnaper and people like that should stay in prison, but alcoholics and addict should be allowed treatment and get back into the real world to make room for people like Garrido. Have some love.

  • I am a counselor and was one of the Navy instructors at both San Quentin and Solano. The student were so amazing in that they were more open, honest, and willing to do the work than I expected. They were intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. Working with the students at both prisons was some of the high points of my career. As a resident of California, I often wondered why I was paying taxes to keep them incarcerated when they have so much to offer the community outside prison. I hear that there is fear that they will return to a life of crime, but when students talk about their understanding of the ripple effect of their behavior and do the emotional healing associated with true behavioral change, change does take place. Whether in or out of prison, these guys are going to serve an impossibly huge need and knowing how well they did in school, I would be honored for any of them to be my co-facilitator in a treatment group.

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