Rutgers Provides Hope for Ex-Offenders Navigating Recovery and a Life Beyond Bars

Peer support and sobriety key to reducing recidivism in New Jersey

Nobody wants to return to prison except people like Joseph Hughes, who spent 13 years locked up. On a recent spring day, he fished a beaded necklace out from under his collar and showed it to the inmate seated across from him in the prison cell.

“When I was dealing, I was confronted by a guy who wanted to steal my drugs, but I thought I’d die without them, so I fought back. And he shot me — for $100 worth of opioids. Now, see this?” he said, fingering the necklace. “My daughter made this for me. Today, this is the most important thing I carry. I’m telling you: There is a way out — from prison, from drugs.”

Hughes, who has been drug-free for eight years, is one of 30 former inmates and addicts who now work as peer health navigators in the Intensive Recovery Treatment Support (IRTS) program at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. In their new roles, they help society fight the opioid epidemic, reduce crime and recidivism, improve public health and save tax dollars.

The IRTS program was launched at Rutgers in January 2018 in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The program pairs peer health navigators with current inmates who have a history of opioid abuse. Six months before their release date inmates meet with their peer health navigator to build a relationship and develop a plan to reenter society to stay clean and sober.

barbed wire

For more than a decade, Rutgers has provided physical and mental health care to more than 19,000 of New Jersey’s inmates. The NJDOC asked Rutgers to create the IRTS program because few inmates who received treatment referrals for addiction were following through after they were released.

pill bottle
barbed wire

“Studies have shown that peer support specialists with shared experiences who assist newly released offenders significantly improve the success rates of reentry into society, especially when it comes to mental health treatment and sobriety,” said Mary-Catherine Bohan, vice president of clinical services. “This program takes the concept one step further by allowing the peer health navigators to establish a relationship with inmates while they are still in prison and then remain with them for one year after release to ensure they continue treatment.”

The Rutgers IRTS program can serve up to 600 people, 200 of whom receive medication-assisted treatment and 400 who receive other addiction treatment services, such as psychotherapy. The support team includes peer health navigators, case managers and a nurse.

To prepare a qualified workforce to provide peer support, Rutgers School of Health Professions launched an academic-based Peer Support Certificate training program in 2018, the only one of its kind in the country. Currently, five IRTS peer providers are enrolled in the program.

“The program developed at Rutgers speaks powerfully to the connection between the university and the Department of Corrections,” said Herbert Kaldany, director of mental health and addictions for NJDOC. “By providing a pillar of support to released offenders, the peer health navigators create a stable environment in which offenders can thrive as members of society and thus are helping the state address the opioid epidemic and reduce crime."

Joseph Hughes - Peer Navigator

"Putting programs like this in place...not only impacts and benefits the individual, but it really does benefit society as a whole."

Mary-Catherine Bohan

Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care

Rutgers banner

Hughes believes his life would have turned out differently if the IRTS peer health navigator program existed during the 13 years he was behind bars. “In prison, you don’t talk about your emotions,” he said. “I didn’t know recovery was even possible, but the inmates today listen to me. They see the abscesses and scars on my hands and arms. They know I’m for real, that I’ve been where they are now.”

This shared perspective is something clinicians do not have with former inmates. “Most people released from prison have difficulty finding housing, employment and treatment on their own, which leads them to recidivism and overdoses that often lead to death,” Bohan said. “Peer health navigators are trained to assist these people with whatever they need to transition and maintain their sobriety, whether it’s providing transportation, making a connection with social services or identifying housing, educational training and employment opportunities.”

The IRTS program also helps the peer health navigators maintain their own sobriety, Hughes said.

“As crazy as it seems, I look forward to coming to prison because it’s gratifying to help others. When people I used to serve time with see me in professional clothes and ask me what I’m doing back in the prison, I tell them ‘I’m here to show you that there is hope.’”

"There's a difference between saying, 'I understand,' and saying, 'I've been where you've been and there's another way out.'"

Joseph Hughes

Peer Health Navigator

Joseph Hughes - Peer Navigator
Rutgers Logo