How Ex-Inmates Help Other Released Prisoners

California and North Carolina are among states that hire former inmates to help those who are released from custody and face many medical, psychiatric and substance abuse disorders.

Former inmate Ronald Sanders is now a California community health worker who helps people getting out of prison deal with a host of medical, psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. Inmates being released after years locked away often have mental illnesses and addictions that can land them back in prison if untreated. Sanders and other former prisoners are central players in an approach to helping these men and women that is expanding in California and North Carolina. By year’s end, Los Angeles County plans to have hired 220 such workers to help released inmates navigate life outside, the New York Times reports. “We’ve always known incarceration is bad for health,” said Leah Pope of the Vera Institute of Justice. “But in an age of increasing attention to justice reform and health care reform, the two are increasingly connected.”

Sanders works for the Transitions Clinic Network, which has doubled in size over the past five years and now works out of 25 health centers in eleven states and Puerto Rico. It has treated 5,000 patients since it got its start in 2006 at a San Francisco-run clinic for low-income residents in Bayview-Hunters Point, a neighborhood heavily affected by incarceration. At the time, most inmates left prison without health insurance. The expansion of Medicaid in 32 states under the Affordable Care Act has made low income men and women who are single and childless potentially eligible for free health care for the first time. Sanders, 54, who was incarcerated during his twenties for drug dealing and parole violations, now counsels formerly incarcerated patients whose experiences echo his own. He urges them to manage chronic diseases and quells occasional panic attacks. Offenders incarcerated as teens emerge in middle age as if from a time machine, unfamiliar with transit swipe cards, smartphones, even email.