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Prisoner Counselors STORMING California Prisons to Aid in Addiction Recovery

by Kevin W. Bliss

On October 28, 2022, the first graduates of the Offender Mentor Certification Program (OMCP) at California State Prison (CSP) in Lancaster received their certificates. The new class of 29 will offer peer-to-peer drug abuse recovery and counseling to prisoners across the state. Upon release they can work toward state certification to continue counseling addicts outside.

Participants collectively refer to themselves as STORMING Cohorts, an acronym for a Scarred Team of Recovering Men Inspiring New Generations – alluding to the psychological storms they pull themselves through, as well as those they assist.

OMCP first began at Solano County State Prison in 2009. It has since expanded to Central California Women’s Facility and Valley State Prison, both in Chowchilla. The one-year program culminates in certification as an addiction treatment counselor by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Enrollment requires two CDCR staff references and an interview. Candidates can have no serious disciplinary infractions and must submit a 500-word essay outlining how they maintain their recovery and could help others do the same. They must also have at least five years left on their sentences after graduation. Participants receive 350 hours of masters-degree-level curriculum in neurobiology, pharmacology, treatment ethics, counseling law and protocol, family dynamics and relapse prevention. They also get 250 hours in sessions with licensed counselors.

After graduation, participants can become paid mentors in the California prison system, also using any time worked toward internship hours required for state certification as alcohol and drug counselors upon release.

CDCR recorded nearly 300 fatal prisoner overdoses between 2012 and 2020. Division of Rehabilitation Programs Director Brent Choate told CSP graduates they can reduce that number. “There are so many people that are incarcerated in California that need help,” he said. “We can’t get to everybody. And then you step in. And you’re part of our answer. That’s how important you are.”

Al Sasser, an early graduate of the program dubbed the “First 50,” called recovery a process beneficial to both addict and counselor. “The more I work on me, the better everybody else gets,” he stated.

Sources: KXTV, Los Angeles Times, Victorville Reporter