Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
In 2009 a ground-breaking initiative quietly began peer education behind bars – pairing former prisoners with current ones – to reduce recidivism in New Mexico.
The project was so successful that in 2020, Probation and Parole requested the program be replicated for those on the outside.
Project ECHO recently partnered with the New Mexico Corrections Department to start the Community Peer Education Project, or CPEP, which is fully funded by the department.
Project ECHO has its roots in health care, using videoconferencing and technology to bring expertise from top health care professionals to medical workers in underserved communities around the world.
Much like the Peer Education Project, CPEP utilizes Project ECHO’s methodology to have former probationers and parolees guiding others through the system, providing resources and giving them a shoulder to lean on.
“We’ve seen the power of peer support in prison, so we felt like it would be really powerful on the outside as well,” Karla Thornton, founder of PEP and CPEP, said. “We really believe that peer support can change people’s lives – and make them better citizens in the community.”
Officials with the program and the Corrections Department said the key to the program’s success is having peer educators who “have been in their shoes.”
“It makes such a huge difference to know that you can talk to somebody who’s walked in your shoes, who’s had to actually experience these same challenges,” Corrections Department Cabinet Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said, adding that many participants have already expressed interest in becoming peer support workers.
She said 64 people are currently in the program and 269 have completed it. Of those, 128 still participate in weekly CPEP workshops.
Lucero said even those probation and parole officers who were at first skeptical about the program have come around after seeing the difference CPEP makes.
“At the end of the day, these people go home, they’re part of our communities,” she said. “My vision for this agency in the future is they go home and they become legitimate, contributing members of society and to their family… It strengthens the communities they live in and ultimately, our state benefits from it as well.”
Program specialist Carissa McGee said since launching in March, it has received more than 800 referrals from probation and parole officers around the state. McGee, one of the former inmates who helps run the program, said they seek to work with those considered “high risk” and “high needs.”
“We want to be dealing with the most challenging individuals out there, so that we can hopefully reduce the recidivism. That’s the main goal,” she said.
McGee said the pandemic led them to switch their model from in-person to virtual, a change that allowed them to “reach every corner of New Mexico.” She said they have six volunteer peer educators who undergo an initial training and can oversee up to 30 to 40 probationer/parolees.
McGee said the connection between the two are the “meat and potatoes” of the program. “That is a lot of back and forth. You’re texting, you’re on the phone, you’re sharing stories, lived experience,” she said. “The strength and the beauty and the power that comes from those engagements is really the muscle behind us. It’s our engine.”
She said peer educators help with everything from housing and employment to navigating documents and processes that go along with supervision. McGee said one of the biggest hurdles is teaching clients how to use technology, like emails, smartphones and Zoom calls, that have changed during their time behind bars.
McGee said CPEP holds weekly virtual workshops for participants that “cover life” and skills like effective communication and résumé building. She said peer educators stay “sharp” through bi-weekly sessions where they get more guidance and education.
McGee said, right now, it’s too early to measure recidivism in CPEP – defined as a person reoffending within three years – but they will be watching.
McGee hopes in time the “grapevine” will bring them closer to their goals.
“It’s not a buzz yet amongst our population. And that’s what we’re building towards, so that the folks who are incarcerated, they’re hearing about it. And as soon as they’re getting out they’re asking for it. That’s really what’s going to drive some bigger interest and really get us where we want to be,” she said.