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Peer support inside jail helps inmates have hope

CJ Deering, a peer support specialist inside the Haywood County Detention Center, reads a letter from a former inmate now serving a prison sentence. Jessi Stone photo CJ Deering, a peer support specialist inside the Haywood County Detention Center, reads a letter from a former inmate now serving a prison sentence. Jessi Stone photo

CJ Deering sat at her desk inside the Haywood County Detention Center when she got a surprise phone call from a woman who had been sentenced to prison nine months ago. 

“That’s wonderful, honey,” Deering says in a loving motherly voice. “I think that’s a great idea. We can’t wait to see you.”

The woman called to tell Deering of her plans to return to Haywood Pathways Center once she’s completed her prison sentence in December. 

“She said it’s the only place she feels comfortable,” Deering continued. “And where she wants to continue her recovery.”

It may not seem like much, but Deering and others working with Haywood Pathways Center know it’s a huge win considering many people released from jail tend to go right back to the negative behavior that landed them in jail in the first place. So often the men and women who are awaiting trial at the local jail suffer from mental health and/or addiction, which led them to committing a crime. Without guidance, support and new coping skills to help them toward recovery, those people will continue to be caught up in the criminal justice system. 

That’s where Deering’s work as a peer support specialist becomes such a vital resource — to not only help people overcome their obstacles but to also decrease recidivism rates at the local jail. In the short time that particular woman was in the Haywood County Detention Center, Deering was able to make a big enough impact on her life that she wanted to come back to Pathways to continue her journey to a better life. 

Haywood County native Taylor Eubanks, a 25-year-old mother of two, is well known to local law enforcement and was a frequent guest at the detention center for the last few years. 

“I started getting high at 14 and have had a drug addiction for half my life. I stayed in Haywood getting high with people I grew up with and I’ve been in and out of jail numerous times, always on drug-related charges,” she said. “I ended up with 13 felonies pending and a handful of misdemeanors, but this last time was the first time I wanted to do something different. I knew if I go to prison, I still don’t know any different — I don’t know how to live a normal life when I get out. All I know is how to hustle and make quick money to get high.”

She knew she wanted the chance to go into a rehab program instead of going to prison, but she had no idea what it would take to get into a facility. Deering was able to walk her through the process, from filling out the paperwork, getting a drug and alcohol assessment through Meridian Behavioral Health Services, writing a personal essay and going through a telephone interview. 

Had she not been guided through that long process, Eubanks was looking at a 44-month prison sentence that would take her away from her children for another three and a half years. Instead, Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts suspended her sentence under the condition she complete a rehab program and 18 months of probation. 

“Judge Letts is an amazing person because he’s open minded about recovery. He doesnt think prison fixes the problem, and I’m so thankful he saw I really wanted to change this time,” Eubanks said. “CJ was such an asset while I was in jail — I would have sat there another two months waiting and I’d already been there 65 to 70 days. They wouldn’t let me bond out unless I was going straight to rehab.”

Eubanks went to Black Mountain for rehab on Nov. 14, 2018, and was there until Feb. 14, 2019. She was released early because she completed all her classes and was allowed to go home to see her parents and children. With 14 months of sobriety under her belt, she’s now repairing relationships and working on plans for the future. 

“I have a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter and my drug addiction took me away from them. I left them with my mom so I could get high,” she said. “I’m 14 months clean and if you’d asked me 14 months ago where I’d be today, I’d had said I’d be in prison. But I’ve changed and it’s such a better life on this side of it.”

The work she did with Deering in jail and the continued work she did in rehab taught her about things she had never considered — the triggers that led her to drugs, working through negative emotions and learning healthy coping skills to replace the unhealthy ones she’s known all her life. 

With a clearer mindset and a new lease on life, Eubanks wants to take the skills she’s learned during her recovery process and help others find their way toward a better life. She has been volunteering with No Wrong Door, a new nonprofit in Franklin that provides resources for people suffering from mental illness and addiction, and she recently completed the required training to become a certified peer support specialist. 

“I see the need for it. CJ showed me the ropes because I didn’t know how to do anything in recovery. I didn’t know about NA or AA. I had no coping skills — my coping skills were drugs. I didn’t know how to deal with my emotions, but now I’ve developed a better mindset,” she said. 

In addition to working with No Wrong Door in Franklin, Eubanks has also talked to Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher about coming back into the jail — but this time to help the other girls find hope for recovery.

“Hopefully by February I’ll be working in the jail with the girls I used to get high with. They know me and I feel like if they see me and see that I can do it then they’ll know they can do it too. And I’ll help them in any way I can,” she said. “I know you can’t help everybody, they’ve got to want to change, but 90 percent of them don’t know how or they don’t understand the process and I feel like they haven’t seen enough success stories to want it yet.”

Eubanks said she used to resent the fact that the deputies and police officers in this county would “stay on her” and arrest her every time she’d get caught up in drugs, but now she says she’s thankful they picked her up when they did and more thankful the last time was her wakeup call. 

“Sheriff Christopher knows me so well. He’s seen the worst of me and seen me at the bottom, and when I saw him Friday he told me how proud he was of me and how thankful he was I’m coming back to help others,” she said. 

It’s these kinds of success stories that make the job worth the frustrations, Deering said. While it was an adjustment for her to learn how to work within the rules and regulations of the criminal justice system, she said the process has been much easier because of the support she’s gotten from the sheriff and his staff. 

While Deering has so many success stories of women getting out of jail and turning their lives around, she’s also seen the peer support work have a positive impact on the culture and environment of the women’s pod. There isn’t as much aggression amongst the women, which can be challenging when the pod is at capacity. 

“We’re doing 12 step groups, drug classes, guided meditations, which the girls love, and journaling has been really helpful for them as a way to process their thoughts and feelings.” she said. “In general, the culture of the pod for the women has calmed down because of the personal interaction and the journaling and just being in a more supportive environment instead of a punitive one.”

It also helps the women to know they aren’t alone in their battles with addiction. They learn empathy for one another, and Deering is a positive example of what it looks like to live a life of sobriety. They talk about their goals and dreams, they write letters to God and they’ve had breakthroughs while discussing shame and trauma. 

“Some girls are here longer than others and they come back time and time again, but there seems to be a self-governing culture that has been created in the pod since this program started. They don’t feel so isolated from the rest of the world,” Deering said. “I don’t think they’ve ever been encouraged and they’ve never met anybody in recovery before. I never knew anyone in recovery until someone took me on that path when I was younger, and now I’m doing that for them.”

Mandy Haithcox, executive director of Haywood Pathways Center, said she’s been pleased with how the pilot program has played out inside the detention center — recidivism rates have dropped and more people are finding help through rehab or the Pathways program. 

“I think the program has exceeded our expectations,” she said. “No one knew what having professional advocates in the jail was going to look like, but it’s been amazing for people who haven’t had a way to communicate with the outside world.”

The state grant that funded the two jail peer support positions was not renewed for another year because of budget cuts. However, Deering’s position is now being funded through a contract with Vaya Health and a recent $75,000 grant from the Haywood Healthcare Foundation will help fund the other jail position as well as the two peer support specialists working inside the pathways shelter. 

For anyone who would like to offer support for the program, Deering said she’s always in need of composition books for journaling and more AA and NA workbooks. Donations can be made to Haywood Pathways Center by visiting www.haywoodpathwayscenter.org.

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