The path to reentry starts the moment inmates enter Leath Correctional Institution.
The state women’s prison in Greenwood County houses up to 844 inmates, and about a quarter of the women coming in are serving sentences for drug charges, according to state Department of Corrections data.
“We’ve identified this need,” Associate Warden Michele Carter said. “We actually noticed over the years we had a lot of inmates coming in with drug charges.”
For the prison’s first time, the staff dubbed September “Recovery Month,” with programs and activities intended to help inmates seeking to recover from addiction.
The heart of the prison’s recovery programs is in peer support. Leath has 11 peer support specialists that provide one-on-one sessions weekly, said Rochelle Sims, a program coordinator at Leath. These specialists are inmates who have gone through the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services’ training programs.
“They’re certified to provide those services,” Sims said. “Our goal is that reentry and recovery start at entry.”
Forty-four women attend the prison’s peer support group sessions, she said, and Leath does about seven to 10 one-on-one sessions weekly.
“We’ve had about 54 people participating every day since they’ve started recovery month,” said Ronnie Gilford, another program coordinator.
Throughout September, the women at Leath can participate in daily events, including art therapy sessions, journaling, guest speakers who talk about recovery, courses on reentry resources for when inmates are released and other events intended to teach people healthy coping mechanisms.
“What’s unique about it is that it’s the peer-support specialists that put it together,” Carter said.
Prison staff members provide packets and materials that teach inmates about services and options for recovery, but Carter said they have to seek out help. The recovery month events aren’t mandatory.
“They have to want it. They have to want to be drug-free,” she said. “I always tell them you have to find something that motivates you. ... I think it’s a joy when an inmate gets out and you don’t see them for a while, but the first time they see you they say ‘Hey AW, I’ve been drug-free for a year.’”
Gilford said staff members get thanks during the programs. It feels good, he said, to provide these services and see inmates’ lives improve.
The support doesn’t end when they leave Leath, either. He said he remains in contact with and available to women after they’re released, to offer help and connect them with resources.
“I’m still here,” he said. “Just because you’re released, I’m still here to provide you that support.”
Greenwood County Council recognized and congratulated the staff of Leath at a council meeting earlier in the month, presenting a proclamation to Carter and Warden Patricia Jones-Yeldell for their efforts. Carter said they hope to only make recovery a bigger part of Leath’s mission in the future, growing these programs and providing help for the women housed there.