Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
With only months remaining on a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking, 38-year-old Justin Mack says he wants something big to come out of his time behind bars.
“To actually affect my fellow man in a good way, after years and years of spreading sickness and poison,” he said from inside a Los Lunas prison. “To take all of that experience that I saw out there and use it for something good in here. I thought it would just be an amazing opportunity.”
Mack has been offered that chance through a New Mexico program giving prisoners around the state something rarely found behind bars – choices and voices.
A collaboration between Project ECHO and the New Mexico Corrections Department, the Peer Education Project recruits those inside state prisons to teach healthy practices to fellow inmates and checks in regularly to offer assistance, further education and support.
Those at the heart of the program say what started as an effort to battle a Hepatitis C outbreak in prisons has become a tool that gives inmates confidence, leadership and social skills.
“This isn’t just for the moment; we’re giving you transferable skills. Re-establishing your dignity, your sense of identity, your purpose in life,” said Carissa McGee, a training support analyst with PEP. “It’s going to look different for everybody. Maybe you’re going to become this amazing leader, maybe you’re going to be a better father, maybe you’re going to learn how to communicate better.”
Started in 2009 at the Los Lunas prison, the program has since grown to include every New Mexico prison except Otero County Prison Facility. In that time, PEP has recruited 600 peer educators and has educated more than 12,000 prisoners.
While it is still unclear how the program impacts recidivism for the general population, PEP has recorded a 12% reduction for those inmates who have served as peer educators.
One of those peer educators, Daniel Rowan, left prison in 2016 and now serves as a training specialist with PEP.
Before he walked out from behind those bars, Rowan was a peer educator for three years, an experience that gave him more than knowledge. It taught him he had a voice.
“One of the things, in the ‘out society,’ we all take for granted is having a voice. In prison, you don’t have a voice, period,” Rowan said. “That’s been taken from you. It’s gone. And what this project does is it gives your autonomy back. You’re running this program, we go and train you but then, ‘It’s yours, here you go. Take care of it, do well with it.’ ”
Inmates as teachers
The program began as a way to educate prison staff – from outside the walls – on how to treat Hepatitis C in New Mexico prisons, where 54% of inmates tested positive in 2018, according to the Corrections Department. That morphed into teaching prisoners how to avoid Hepatitis C in the first place.
“The education piece is really what was missing,” Rowan said. “It gives people an opportunity to talk about their health.”
The classes run over two hours and, depending on the facility, happen anywhere from one to four times a month. But instead of having an outsider hold classes, Rowan and other PEP staff enlist inmates to do the teaching.
Currently there are 100 peer educators – some of them serving a life sentence – in prisons around the state. For their time they will be paid 70 cents an hour.
McGee said a big part of the program is tapping into the natural leadership of peer educators.
“We have this opportunity and whether they want it, it’s up to them, that’s kind of what life is about. When an opportunity is given to you, what do you do with it?” she said. “Do you just squander it or are you going to take full advantage of it? We try and teach them that. It’s going to be hard, it might be difficult, but it’s an opportunity that can really better you.”
‘Hope for the future’
They also hold teleconferences twice a month from Project ECHO’s headquarters. During the sessions each peer education group is able to see and hear PEP staff – and vice versa – as they discuss any problems, give health information and even learn a thing or two.
Rowan said they will advise peer educators on any issues they may be facing; unexpected lockdowns, new members, domestic issues among members and planning. They also take time to provide them with ongoing education in harm reduction, health, the spreading of germs and interpersonal relationships.
During a recent teleconference Rowan, McGee and Program Manager Saul Hernandez sat at a long table before a microphone and – against the far wall – a giant flat-screen TV with a camera beneath it.
On the television are several smaller screens, like you would see in a multiplayer videogame, linking peer educator groups from prisons around the state. Also being piped in is UNM Professor Kimberly Page to teach them a lesson on human studies and program coordinator Andrea Janota from Indiana University, where they plan to replicate the PEP program for the first time out of state.
The peer educators at the prison in Los Lunas gave the case presentation of the day: members that had been released but returned to prison and wanted to rejoin PEP.
The different groups – along with Rowan and PEP staff – went back and forth weighing the pros, cons and potential outcomes of allowing re-incarcerated members to return to the program.
“I think – whether the person is going to be a peer educator again or not – the best policy is to have some empathy for that person, offer them support, maybe learn from their situation,” Rowan advised. “But most importantly, not to judge that person, because it’s hard.”
During the teleconference – and through some technical difficulties – the members are respectful of each other, they are engaged in the discussions and seek guidance from PEP. But they also find time to laugh and joke around when humor bubbles up in the conversation.
Many of them want to continue what they’re doing once they are released as ECHO staff, drug counselors and positive influences.
Diego Rascon, 33, said he has enjoyed giving fellow inmates “choices and hope for the future” as a peer educator.
“Me personally, I look forward to making the world a safer place, one peer at a time,” Rascon said.
McGee said that sentiment is their “whole philosophy” at PEP.
“You’re going to get something about it that’s going to change you, evolve you, help you grow in some way. Why you came here, that’s irrelevant. But what you get out of it, that’s everything,” she said.
Before they sign off, Rowan tells the Los Lunas group that he’ll be visiting in a few weeks.
“Alright, I’ll be here,” one man chimes in with a smile.