After reviving someone from an overdose, there’s a short window of time where a conversation about getting help might be received as a friendly offering instead of an unwanted lecture.
That’s what John Becker recently told a room full of city correctional officers during a workshop at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons Training Academy on Torresdale Avenue.
“You may never know the impact you’ve had on somebody,” said Becker, a former Philadelphia detective. Now 10 years into recovery, he runs a firm dedicated to helping people with addiction and mental health issues. “The idea is just to talk to people and help them think about getting into treatment.”
Becker’s training session — which draws on methods developed by Steve Forzato as part of his role as the founding director for the Center for Addiction and Recovery Education at St. Joseph’s University — is offered to frontline criminal justice system workers across Pennsylvania, from police to parole officers, to improve how these first responders treat people who use opioids.
The course covers a range of topics, from understanding the impacts of trauma to how to use naloxone, an overdose reversal medication more commonly known as Narcan. The end goal of the trainings, Forzato said, is twofold: to help criminal justice system employees understand that addiction is a chronic disease and give them techniques to use during interventions that connect people to treatment.
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“They think we’re there to tell them how to do their jobs,” Forzato said, describing a common initial reaction: “‘Oh my god. We have enough to do.’ [But] we get by that, and their arms start to unfold, and they begin to participate.”
That scenario played out at the recent session with Philly correctional officers.
Correctional Officer Gonzalez, a 42-year-old who said he’s worked at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center for nearly 14 years and didn’t want to use his first name for safety reasons, said the training helped him learn a lot of new skills, like how to differentiate between heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has largely supplanted heroin in Philadelphia since it is easier for dealers to supply.
“I had no idea how such a low dose of fentanyl affects the brain,” Gonzalez said. “I never would have known that if I hadn’t attended the training.”
Philadelphia recorded a record 1,250 drug overdose deaths in 2021. Pennsylvania recorded 5,360 — the third highest count of all U.S. states. Forzato told Billy Penn leaders from five other states had reached out to the St. Joe’s program for help in developing similar trainings. Also per Forzato: The CDC, which in 2020 gave the program $1.2 million to get started, has granted another $650,000 to expand it.
CO Gonzalez recently lost a close friend to a drug overdose, he said — someone who hid his addiction. He said the training was also helpful because it explained how people in law enforcement compartmentalize their stress.
“If I could leave [my job] tomorrow, I would,” Gonzalez said. But he had trouble finding work to support himself and his wife before becoming a correctional officer, so Gonzalez worries about losing his accrued benefits, he said, despite stresses like 8-hour shifts sometimes suddenly turning into 20-hour shifts when the prison is understaffed.
When Becker led the recent training, he encouraged officers to think more about self-care, and how their own experiences relate to those they might help get into recovery.
“Look at the people you work with. How many of them drink too much?” he asked the group. Many heads nodded in response.
Becker also spoke to the officers about how to use non-stigmatizing language, such as avoiding calling someone with a substance use disorder an “addict.”
“If you start the conversation with, ‘Hey, junkie,’ do you think they’re going to talk to you?” Becker asked the room. A chorus of “nos” followed.
Becker emphasized that being “trauma aware” did not mean correctional officers had to be experts on treating trauma. Instead of asking themselves, “What is wrong with this person?” they should think about asking, “What has happened to this person?” Becker advised.
The COs left the training with a booklet full of the information they had been given during the four-hour training, as well as a plastic card that lists several hotline numbers and breaks down the main messages into simple terms:
“Be patient. Listen. Instill hope. Help build their recovery confidence.”