When Lauren Giwa, Director of CASES’ newSTART  program, made plans to attend the Howie the Harp Advocacy Center  (HtH) graduation ceremony, she had no idea she would find herself a participant in the celebration.
Lauren attended the ceremony to support Joseph Holliday, a Peer Intern connected by HtH to CASES. Joseph made an impressive contribution as the Peer Intern in newSTART, and Lauren had recently hired him to continue as the program’s Peer Specialist once he completed his internship.
Over the past 15 years, CASES has committed to integrating peer staff in our behavioral health services for individuals who have become involved in the criminal justice system. Peers use their own experience of recovery from behavioral health disorders to support others facing similar challenges. Peer support is recognized as a best practice by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and researchers have found that peer support promotes reduced symptoms and hospitalizations, increased wellness and prosocial functioning, increased community participation, and longer-lasting recovery.
For many years, CASES has partnered with HtH including as a host site for Peer Interns like Joseph. As the recent HtH graduation ceremony began, Lauren received the whispered congratulations of one of her coworkers in attendance. It was only then she realized she would be receiving the Harp Commitment Award, given annually to recognize an individual demonstrating a strong dedication to hosting and hiring participants from the HtH Peer Specialist Training Program.
“Every program should have peer staff,” Lauren said when asked about the importance of peer services. “You don’t need a degree to have valuable insight, particularly when that insight develops from personal experience with incarceration, homelessness, and mental illness. Peer interns are often more understanding [than other staff] of the barriers holding back our participants.”
To ensure Joseph’s success at CASES, Lauren engaged him as any other full member of the newSTART team. This commitment to fully integrating peer staff is a core best practice of effective peer services. Joseph was given the opportunity and support to hone his approach. For example, Joseph’s peer history allowed him to connect with a particularly withdrawn participant who had been unwilling or unable to open up to non-peer team members. Joseph sat with him and talked, and they ended up finding common ground over the smell of prison. That small shared experience—a sensory detail many people would overlook—allowed the participant to recognize Joseph as a nonjudgmental ear. This connection let Joseph make progress with a participant who likely otherwise would have stayed reserved and resistant to engaging in newSTART services.
Lauren and Joseph are part of the team implementing the newSTART program, launched in fall 2017 as a significant expansion of CASES’ alternative-to-incarceration programs in Manhattan Criminal Court. newSTART primarily serves individuals who would otherwise face short jail stays at Rikers Island—which often fail to prevent recidivism while worsening physical and/or mental health and generating significant public expense. In the coming year, newSTART will divert more than 1,900 men and women from jail. Peer staff like Joseph will help newSTART clients who have mental illness to build independent living skills, gain access to needed public assistance and/or support and treatment services, and address patterns that contribute to justice-involvement.
“I look forward to hosting future Peer Interns in newSTART,” Lauren said. “Peer experience brings a perspective that can’t be taught in schools, and that perspective can help us to better understand and meet the needs of the people we serve.”