A Partnership Model for Released Prisoners

William Dearstyne is a community support navigator in CHD’s Behavioral Health for Justice Involved Individuals (BH-JI), a program funded by MassHealth and the UMass Chan Medical School that supports people being released from the Franklin, Hampshire, and Berkshire County Jails. The aim is to break the recidivism cycle, since thousands of prisoners in the US every year complete their sentences but end up committing another crime and going back behind bars.

In the program, launched in 2022, CHD navigators meet with prisoners before they leave jail—up to six months before they are released—to build a support plan, and follow them once they are released for three to 12 months, with the first 30 days being daily communication with visits, calls, or texts. After that period, they are visited weekly. The navigators connect participants to such services as housing, medical insurance, mental health stabilization, primary care, and substance use treatment—including Medication Assisted Treatment.

Dearstyne, a navigator who has lived experience with substance use, is able tell the individuals he serves, “I’ve been there too,” he said. “If you’ve come from a background of selling drugs, it’s difficult to get a nine-to-five job and make half the amount of money in a week that you used to in two days as a drug dealer. Those are the thoughts you have to battle—it’s a long process. But I say to them, ‘I know how to do it.’”

That relationship is based on a partnership model, in which the navigator is less of an authority figure and more of a peer. “I’ve brought guys fishing,” said Dearstyne. “Having that friendship bond with a lot of these people really helps—it’s a lot easier to open up to someone. It’s one thing to talk to a stranger in a clinical setting. It’s another thing to talk to someone as your friend.”

Dearstyne, who is from the Berskhires, has on occasion in the BH-JI program helped the very people he used to hang out with 10 years ago. They ask him about his journey of recovery, and he is glad to tell them. He says that having a peer position in these relationships enables him to gain their trust—something that doesn’t come easy in their lives. “Many of these people have never experienced having a relationship with someone who helps them, but doesn’t want something in return—whether it be a ride, a place to stay, or a little bit of what [substances] they have,” he said. “But, as navigators, we don’t anything from these people but to see them smiling, happy, and successful.”

He likes to tell the individuals he serves the famous “addict in the hole” story: “An alcoholic is walking down the street and falls in a hole,” he said. “He cries for help, and a therapist asks him how he feels about how he got in the hole, but after a lot of talking, the therapist goes home and the man feels better, but he is still in the hole.” A businessman heard him crying and threw money to him to buy a ladder, but he was still stuck in the hole. “The next day, a doctor came by and gave him some pills, and he forgot that he was in the hole, but he was still stuck, and the pills ran out. “A preacher comes up and says a prayer from him, and he was grateful, but still in the hole,” said Dearstyne. “Finally, a recovering alcoholic was passing by, and the man cried for help again. The recovering alcoholic jumped in with him. The man said, ‘What are you doing? Now we’re both stuck in here!’ But the recovering alcoholic smiled, and said, “It’s OK. I’ve been here before. I know how to get out.’”