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A prison pipeline that could help meet Oregon’s behavioral health workforce needs

The state corrections department is expanding a program that certifies prisoners to be drug and alcohol counselors and mentors — and it couldn’t happen at a better time
Dean Kienholz in his office at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, Ore. on July 19, 2023. Kienholz is a prisoner who became a certified alcohol and drug counselor while incarcerated. | EMILY GREEN/THE LUND REPORT
August 25, 2023

Martin Lockett spends his days counseling desperate Oregonians who dial up the state’s suicide prevention and addiction resource help lines.

What helps make Lockett effective in assisting callers is the life he has lived — specifically, his experiences with alcohol misuse and the time he spent in prison reflecting on its consequences. 

And Oregon needs more people like him. Study after study has shown huge gaps in the state’s behavioral health system, but for years there’s been a stubborn shortage of trained workers to fill those gaps — including people with life experience that helps them connect with clients.

But there’s a place where Oregon can find quite a few of those people, including many who will soon be looking for jobs: the state’s correctional system.

In fact, it was through a small, in-prison training program that Lockett was certified to be an alcohol and drug counselor. 

Martin Lockett works as a CADC case manager at Lines for Life.

Currently, the Oregon Department of Corrections offers training programs for drug and alcohol counselors and recovery mentors at only three of Oregon’s 12 prisons, and the programs are limited to small groups of prisoners. 

But officials at the department say they’re taking steps to change that. Beginning with a recent budget increase of $8.7 million, they plan to establish large training and treatment programs at all 12 of Oregon’s prisons, starting with the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon. 

The ramp-up will help fill Oregon’s workforce needs, given the high demand across the state for such trainees.

Devarshi Bajpai, the department’s behavioral health services administrator, said that in his experience, every certified recovery mentor and counselor trained in Oregon’s prisons “has gotten a job within a week.” 

These jobs not only help clients, like the callers Lockett works with, they help the workers, too. Ex-prisoners trained within the department, who have continued working in addiction recovery after their release, described the work to Oggys Online as something that supports their own recovery while offering them a chance at redemption. 

For Lockett, it’s one of the ways he gives back, he said, after killing two people in Portland when he drove drunk on New Year’s Eve 2003. 

He spent the next 18 years in prison for manslaughter, but he said that was just a “down payment” on his debt. 

“In order for me to repay society,” he said, “I have to commit to this lifelong work of trying everything I can in my power to prevent somebody else from following in my footsteps.”

Prisoners training prisoners

The story of Lockett, and that of  a prisoner he mentored, Dean Kienholz, show the difference that the in-prison training program can make, not only to a prisoner who becomes a counselor, but to the system itself. 

Behind the state’s move to train more counselors is a disconcerting fact: Most Oregon prisoners with substance use disorder can’t get the addiction treatment they need behind bars.

More than 4,000 people were released from Oregon prisons last year. Of the nearly two-thirds who went into the system needing drug treatment, more than 80% were released without getting it. 

Before he was released, Lockett worked as a counselor to fellow prisoners at Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem who were lucky enough to gain entry to the prison’s 20-bed treatment program. 

Dean Kienholz sits on his bed inside the treatment unit at Columbia River Correctional Institution where he works as a counselor while serving his sentence.

One prisoner Lockett mentored, then recruited to the training program, was Kienholz. 

Like Lockett, Kienholz also earned a long sentence for killing someone while driving drunk. It happened in January 2000, when Kienholz went out clubbing with friends in Corvallis and drank way too much, he told Oggys Online. That night his van collided with a car carrying four college students as he drove the wrong way down a one-way street. Three were injured and one was killed. A passenger in his car, his best friend, was also life-flighted to a hospital, he said.

As Kienholz sobered in the hospital and realized what he had done, he said he was hit with a wave of grief. 

“I vowed that I would live the rest of my life doing what I can to spread awareness about the risks involved when a person drinks and drives,” he said, “and I would do everything I possibly can to change from being the person I once was.”

Lockett saw his commitment. 

“I knew this was everything to him,” Lockett said. “And I knew that he would make a great counselor.”

Prisoners at Columbia River Corrections Institution in Portland named the treatment program "New Foundations." It's where Kienholz now works as a certified alcohol and drug counselor.

Kienholz jumped at the opportunity. He took the standard 40-hour peer mentor training, then he went through the six-month treatment program to learn the material as a participant. He then completed 500 mentoring hours to become a certified recovery mentor. 

To earn his certification for drug and alcohol counseling, he completed 1,000 clinical hours plus 150 hours education hours, meeting the state’s requirements.

During that time, he mentored other guys in the program. Lockett remembers when Kienholz intervened with a prisoner who was feeling furious and hopeless because he had just learned his release was being delayed. “He was ready to just do something bad to somebody,” Lockett said.

Kienholz spent more than an hour talking him down, getting him to focus on the bigger picture, Lockett said. “He just had a way of really just connecting with guys, even in those super intense, crisis moments.” 

Last September, Kienholz was transferred to Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland so he could join the clinical team in the prison’s 50-bed treatment dormitory for men with substance use and mental health disorders. He has a caseload of six men that he mentors, and he facilitates support groups and performs crisis intervention. 

“He has had a huge impact,” said Bajpai, the corrections department’s behavioral health administrator. “I don’t think there’s any staff member here that would even slightly hesitate to give him a reference when he goes out into the community.”

Bajpai said expanding the program with the help of incarcerated workers will eventually make addiction treatment available to every Oregon state prisoner who wants it.

And the demand is there. The state launched a diversion pilot program at Oregon State Penitentiary last year that offers six months of treatment to a limited number of prisoners in lieu of penalties for misconduct, with fellow prisoners delivering services. Bajpai told Oggys Online in May that prisoners were “banging down the door” to participate.

Help wanted

On the outside, workers like Kienholz are in high demand.

The Oregon Legislature has invested more than a billion dollars in new funding to grow the state’s behavioral health system in recent years. That money will support creating jobs, including what one study estimated was a shortage of about 2,000 certified alcohol and drug counselors across the state.

Also expanding the workforce is the grant program Oregon voters created when they approved Measure 110, Oregon’s drug decriminalization law, in 2020. That program awards hundreds of millions in marijuana taxes to treatment and recovery providers every two years.

And a primary focus of that spending is expanding services that people in recovery from addiction deliver directly to clients. These workers gain entry into the behavioral health field as certified recovery mentors or peer support specialists. Known in the system as “peers,” they are trained to engage with people who use drugs, offering mentorship and resources while demonstrating by example that recovery is possible. Many go on to become certified alcohol and drug counselors and beyond as they advance their careers.

But as Oregon grows counseling and peer positions, filling them has been a challenge for many employers.

According to a June 2021 survey, about 20% of behavioral health providers in Oregon reported it takes six months or longer to fill a position, on average. 

As of Aug. 24, there were 74 openings for peers and certified alcohol and drug counselors listed on the Mental Health and Addiction Certification Board of Oregon’s job board.

Bajpai, who’s overseeing the program’s expansion, said plugging workforce gaps outside of prisons is part of the goal. 

“I think the numbers are going to make a difference,” he said.

Devarshi Bajpai, the Oregon Department of Corrections behavioral health administrator, stands in the yard at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, Ore. on July 19, 2023. A person in recovery himself, Bajpai's colleagues say his leadership has been key in expanding treatment access among state prisons.

Some prisoners face barriers

While a criminal background can help people become a counselor or peer mentor, government restrictions and private hiring practices are a hindrance for some.

Amanda Nash became a certified recovery mentor while serving time at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s only women’s prison. The prison began offering peer training and certification about a year and a half ago. Shortly after completing a sentence for a domestic assault charge this past October, she had gone full circle, securing a job helping victims at a domestic violence shelter in southern Oregon.

She soon had a caseload and was building a rapport with her clients. But she was let go when her employer determined that federal rules barred employing someone on parole for her position, she said. 

“At that point, I took my grief, and I just used it as power,” she said. “I thought, you know, what? I'm going to be running a place like that in three years, so I'm going to school.”

Nash is now earning her counseling certification through Umpqua Community College.

She’s not alone in facing challenges in the field as a former prisoner.

About 81% of recovery mentors and 46% of counselors reported having a criminal background that included either felonies or misdemeanor crimes, according to a 2018 industry survey from the state’s certification board. About 20% also said they’d been denied employment because of that history, with denials disproportionately impacting Black peers and counselors.

Miguel Tellez was one of the first prisoners to earn his drug and alcohol counseling certification in an Oregon prison. 

He grew up rough in the barrio in Tucson, Arizona, he said, adding that he was an alcoholic by age 9 and a gangster at 10. He married and moved to Klamath Falls, where he murdered his wife.

“Sometimes when I tell a story, I can’t even believe it,” he said. “It was really bad. But that’s my story, and I can’t change it.” 

For years following his release in 1999, Tellez was one of very few Spanish-speaking alcohol and drug counselors in Oregon. He worked to integrate cultural components into treatment wherever he worked.

Miguel Tellez had a long career in addiction treatment and recovery after his release from prison in 1999.

After he left prison, Tellez began working with Latino youths at an alternative high school, then through Morrison Child and Family Services. But when he went to work for Cascadia Health in a state-funded position, he was told his criminal history was a problem. He appealed and was given a waiver and the job. In 2008, he went to work at Volunteers of America, and had to go through the appeal process again, this time twice, before he was approved. He worked there for about seven years until, he said, he was told one day that he could no longer work there due to his 1991 conviction.

At issue was a state law passed in 2009 that barred public funds from being used to pay a counselor who’s been convicted of charges that include aggravated murder, murder, or first degree rape, sodomy, sexual abuse or unlawful sexual penetration. 

“I’ve got a good history, a good long history. Not just my recovery, but all the work I’ve done in the recovery field, but it still didn’t matter,” he said.

After leaving the field, Tellez went on to become the first executive director of Northwest Instituto Latino before retiring.

Ricardo Olalde started the prison’s training program in 1997 and still runs it today as a state contractor. He said the vast majority of the program’s graduates aren’t serving time for crimes that would exclude them from state-funded work. But he said excluding people convicted of murder, a group that has a low recidivism rate, “doesn’t make sense.”

Kienholz, for one, is optimistic about his prospects when he’s released in 2025. He plans to continue working in Oregon as a drug and alcohol counselor, and he said his background will help.

“Being able to have that history, you’re able to create a better therapeutic alliance with the client,” he said. “Being able to understand and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I've been there. I've gone through that. I walked through it, this is how I got through it, and you can, too. … maybe we can walk through this trench together and get out on the other side.’”

Emily Green can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.