Magazine article Corrections Today

Offender Peer Education in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Magazine article Corrections Today

Offender Peer Education in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Article excerpt

Ac ccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offenders in jails and risons are disproportionately affected by multiple health problems, including HIV, other sexually transmitted infections, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis. The first place an offender is often diagnosed with chronic or infectious diseases is in a correctional setting. This makes the correctional setting an important and effective place to begin teaching offenders methods to prevent or manage these diseases. Since researchers have found that offenders respond better to educators with whom they can relate, such as other offenders, a peer education teaching model is very effective.

In 1998, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) entered into a partnership with the AIDS Foundation Houston Inc., to conduct a pilot HIV/AIDS offender peer education program in five TDCJ units. The units that were chosen had a very diverse population of offenders. After six months, an independent agency in Houston, Associates Inc., performed an evaluation of the pilot by administering pre- and post-tests to the offender participants. These tests not only increased offenders' knowledge after attending the program, but also impacted the offenders' attitudes, beliefs and behaviors about HIV/AIDS.

It was soon discovered that the knowledge gained in this program was expanding outside the classroom to not only other offenders, but also to the offenders' families. Even more surprising was the knowledge and interest that spread to the TDCJ staff. The wardens expressed a desire for this program to continue due to the positive changes that were resulting and it became evident that this was an opportunity to bring preventive health education to a much broader audience.

The TDCJ Health Services Division created a peer education coordinator position to promote and monitor the program. The topics were expanded to include other infectious diseases as well as chronic diseases. The unit's Classification Department created full-time job positions for offender peer educators that reward good time and work time. To be considered, an offender cannot have committed a minor disciplinary violation in the past six months, or a major disciplinary violation in the past 12 months; a criminal conviction involving a sexual assault-related offense; or a history of extortion, aggressive sexual acts or disciplinary offenses related to sexual misconduct. This position is a highly coveted job among offenders. They consider it a privilege and take it very seriously.

The program is carried out in partnership with community-based organizations (CBOs) and is tailored to the individual unit's needs and building schedule. Each TDCJ unit designates a staff member who serves as a unit coordinator and point of contact for the CBO. The CBO trains the peer educators and provides teaching materials, so the program operates at little cost to TDCJ. In addition to AIDS Foundation Houston Inc., TDCJ began to build a coalition of CBOs around the state. It became evident that a network of service providers also needed to be established to assist HIV-positive offenders transition back into the community after release from TDCJ.

In 2002, TDCJ began researching various organizations in order to establish which would be the most appropriate for TDCJ to form partnerships with. The primary concern was determining which organizations already had services for discharging offenders, or those that had an interest in providing such services. Another concern was to locate agencies and providers in various regions of the state to include Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston, the Panhandle, the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and far west Texas. Finally, the CBOs' financial solvency/fiscal health was evaluated. Examinations of organization charts, financial reports and the CBOs' charity navigator ratings were conducted. Once TDCJ identified the organizations that met the requirements, memoranda of understanding (MOUs) were initiated with the CB0s. …

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