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Peer coaching state pilot program at Delaware County jail already engaging nearly all inmates

Mental Health America of Indiana is overseeing the five state pilot programs.
Stephanie Wiechmann
Mental Health America of Indiana is overseeing the five state pilot programs.

Nearly all eligible inmates at the Delaware County jail are taking part in a peer coaching state pilot program. As IPR’s Stephanie Wiechmann reports, five counties in the state are trialing the method aimed at helping substance abuse disorders and supporting people during and after incarceration.

The program’s official name is the Integrated Reentry and Correctional Support Program — IRACS for short.

Delaware County Sheriff Tony Skinner says everyone besides those in maximum security and lockdown are eligible to participate, because of liability.

Travis Jester heads the program in Delaware and Blackford counties. He says inmates have responded well to the peer coaches, because the coaches have lived their experiences, too – incarceration or substance abuse.

“I’m a convicted felon. And now I’m a Director of Recovery over northeast Indiana. And I feel like, if not 90, all 100 percent of the people in there that we’re working with could do my job.”

The trained peer coaches meet with inmates throughout their time in jail. Then IRACS navigators and others continue services for at least a month after someone goes back into the community.

Blackford, Davies, Dearborn, Delaware, and Scott counties began programs in the last month or two. Delaware County is the largest – with about 340 inmates currently at the jail.

Organizers say all five counties’ program staff are connected as a community for help and support.

Sheriff Skinner says IRACS coaches work alongside jail staff.

“The team of peer support specialists have full access of the facility during business hours Monday through Friday. They have ample space to meet with the inmates, to evaluate their needs, and then begin counseling with them.”

Skinner says correctional staff have received extra training about IRACS. The Justice Center has even upgraded the jail’s WIFI to make sure peer coaches have the connections they need.

The pilot program began July 21, after being announced in Delaware County in May.

Jester says the biggest issue in the first weeks of the program is “math” and time. There are about 50 female inmates in Delaware County and 290 men. With about 65 total inmates in Blackford County, the same problem arises. That means a longer wait for male inmates to see a peer coach at first. And Jester says those initial meetings are running more than an hour, when a typical meeting will likely run half that time.

But Jester says participants are still very invested. He tells them, “That’s recovery. Recovery is just the fact that you’re sitting down with me.”

Jester is from Blackford County and served time in the jail there. He says he’s seen as a good example to inmates he served with.

“If Jester can do it, I can do this. And I’m like, ‘Absolutely. You guys can all do what I do, and probably better.’”

In Delaware County, both the county and the city of Muncie are each dedicating $50,000 to the program each year going forward. Program coordinators say that’s let them hire more people to do the work.

Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration says IRACS is funded through June 2023 through Indiana’s voucher-based Recover Works. Jayme Whitaker, Vice President of Forensic Services at Mental Health America of Indiana, oversees the state program. He’s said the programs are designed to be self-sustaining and should continue to exist long into the future.

And Skinner is such a fan of the program even after a few weeks that he hopes the state will roll it out to every county jail in the next few years.

Delaware County Commissioners president Sherri Riggin says the county is still working to bring mental health counseling to the jail, accepting a build-out bid from the same contractor that turned the former Wilson Middle School into the Delaware County Justice Center. That’s being paid for by federal COVID-19 relief funds from both Delaware County and the city of Muncie.