Former inmate now works at Rutgers as peer health navigator for other recovering inmates
On August 27, Joseph Hughes, a Camden resident and former inmate, will have completed his first year as a peer health navigator for the Intensive Recovery Treatment Support (IRTS) Program.
The program serves New Jersey inmates diagnosed with opioid disorders and utilizes an untraditional team approach to help inmates access medication, treatment and other recovery services, said Rena Gitlitz, director of Community Outreach Programs at Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare.
“It is the exact opposite of the traditional medical model in that it is a peer-driven model of services,” Gitlitz said. “The peer health navigators who are hired to assist individuals in their reentry into society have either lived experience with incarceration and successful reentry, substance abuse and recovery or both.”
It is important that those providing the majority of the services also be in the same position at some point in their past as the individuals they now serve, Gitlitz said. This finding is evidence-based.
“The most impactful lesson we have learned is how effective and life altering the provision of peer-driven services can be,” she said. “Peer-driven services are an evidenced-based practice and we are excited to take the lessons we have learned, the data and the outcomes to further expand that evidence-based practice.”
The population the program aims to serve — individuals leaving incarceration — are the most at-risk population for opioid overdoses in society, Gitlitz said.
This is because change can be frightening for addicts. In jail, individuals are accustomed to eating three meals a day, taking medication and having a roof above their head, Hughes said. This leads to a culture shock when they are released.
“A lot of times it's frightening for these guys when they come out and they don't have that … the only thing they know they do is what landed them in jail before. Anything new is frightening to an addict. Even if it’s bad, at least we know what to expect. It’s bad,” he said.
Hughes began dealing drugs and using them recreationally at 13 years old. His life spiraled out of control, he said.
“They say if the drugs don’t kill you, the lifestyle will. The summer after I graduated college, I got caught with 164 bags of cocaine and after that I was in and out of prison for 13 years. I’ve been shot, stabbed and my substance abuse escalated from alcohol to marijuana to cocaine to heroin,” Hughes said.
His own road to recovery helped him make the decision to be a peer health navigator, he said.
“I had some people that took me under their wing. They were peer support specialists without even knowing it,” Hughes said. “They told the last part of my story has yet to be written, and next thing you know I’m graduating college with a 4.0. Now I help people because I know what it’s like to be lost.”
For Hughes, the most important part of the job is to show unconditional love.
“We think of people in recovery as the land of the misfit toys. We all have a broken, fractured personality. We tried to put it together with drugs and alcohol to numb our feelings,” he said. “I find that the best thing to do is to show unconditional love because everybody has a story.”
Staff and peer health navigators, like Hughes, employ a variety of engagement and treatment strategies including a blend of face-to-face “high-touch” visits with the use of tele-health technology, Gitlitz said.
For Hughes, the most fulfilling part of being a peer health navigator is seeing the program’s impact on former inmates.
“Saying a person’s changed is nothing like actually seeing them. We would go in and they’re actually changing. Like yeah I know this guy, he was a problem back then but not anymore. He went from being a dope dealer to being a hope dealer,” he said.
The program, while helping current recovering inmates, also provides peer health navigators with a sense of purpose, Hughes said. He thought being in jail, a lack of education, treatment attempts and absences were failures, but realized they were actually his experience and hope in disguise.
Having spent so many years of his life in the dark, Hughes said he is grateful that he is able to shine light on somebody else.
The IRTS program officially opened on February 1, 2018, Gitlitz said. Since then, it has been providing peer-driven services to more than 600 individuals throughout New Jersey.