RSW Jail hopes peer-to-peer program helps inmates struggling with addiction

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When Russ Gilkison looks at his inmates, he sees the faces of addiction.

Gilkison, the superintendent of Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail in Front Royal, Va., says 90 percent of the inmates at the jail are incarcerated, in some part, due to drugs.

“They’ve had a bad drug screen through probational parole, or they’ve committed other crimes to feed their habit,” he said. “It really is the number one issue for our community and the facility I believe.”

But Gilkison thinks he may have found a real solution for the addiction issues he sees. Thanks to a $10,000 matching grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the jail will be partnering with the McShin Foundation, which is based in Richmond. 

That solution comes in the form of a peer-to-peer counseling.The McShin foundation is bringing their support system and the promise of transitional housing to aid re-entry to the Northern Shenandoah Valley. 

“Rather than the clinical aspect of treatment or rehab,” said Christopher Ronquest, the foundation’s Virginia Recovery and Re-Entry project’s director, “our service is provided by peers. People who have been there, done that.”

Ronquest says the majority of the foundation’s staff are in long-term recovery themselves and the peer-to-peer program really works. 

And Ronquest would know. He went through the program several years ago at another Virginia jail. He’s been sober and out of prison ever since. 

“We’re hope providers,” said Ronquest. “We’ve all been there, we’ve done that, and now we’re doing something better and we’re able to show them how we did that.”

Ronquest says a number of volunteers from across the commonwealth have offered to help at the RSW jail. Founders of the Recovery Connection in Winchester, Julie Funkhouser and Meredith Speir, are volunteering, as well as Shauna Creek, a case manager at the Friends of Guest House in Alexandria.

Together, volunteers and inmates will form a support network both inside and outside of the jail. Volunteers will work with inmates one-on-one and the jail will establish a recovery pod, allowing inmates in the program to live with others who are focused on sobriety.

Although the jail has other recovery programs in place, such as working with licensed counselors, Gilkison says there’s never been a peer-to-peer program since the jail opened in 2014.

“We’re excited to hopefully see some positive results in re-entry and recidivism,” said Gilkison. 

The program has over a dozen volunteers currently, but Ronquest is seeking others to work with inmates at the RSW Regional Jail. If you are interested, you can contact him at chrisr@mcshin.org.

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