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By Liora Engel-Smith

Philip Cooper has always been outspoken. So when the Asheville resident chose to ditch cocaine there was only one way he could see to do it: He had to recover out loud. 

It was a practice the 36 year old honed in 2009 when he was doing time for drug trafficking and assault. He talked about what drugs gave him and what they took away. Uppers gave him the energy to party at first, but by the time he got arrested, none of it was appealing anymore. Then came the hallucinations.

“I would just be, like, stuck,” he said. “Trying to get out of windows and searching carpets for imaginary pieces I thought I dropped.”

So when he was selected for A New Direction, a prison-based program that offers counseling, groups and other support for inmates seeking recovery, Cooper started talking to anyone who would listen. Soon, he qualified for certification as a peer support specialist. A role for people who are in long-term recovery from mental illness or substance misuse, specialists assist others in the journey to wellness by being a positive influence and modeling essential coping skills. 

Cooper moved from facility to facility, talking to other inmates about recovery. 

Twelve years later and a world away from prison life, Cooper remains “knee-deep” in recovery. He’s helped others do the same, first at a peer support program that also offers job training at Asheville’s AB Tech Community College. Though employment training isn’t what most people would consider public health, Cooper knows that financial stability — and by extension, a well-paying job — is an important aspect of attaining and maintaining recovery.

Ex-offenders, particularly those in recovery, need support on all fronts: finding a job despite the stigma of prior incarceration and navigating the often difficult emotions that come with that process without the crutch that drugs or alcohol once provided. Cooper said the two needs are so interconnected that a job readiness program without peer support or a peer support program without job readiness isn’t enough.

At the same time, drug use in western North Carolina has soared. Buncombe County has seen a sharp rise in opioid-related overdose deaths in the past decade. The same trend has also played out in the entire region, where 1 in 5 residents reported they used opioids without a prescription in 2018. Almost half of residents said that they were negatively affected by their own, or a loved one’s substance use, the same survey says. 

That growing need spurred Cooper to explore new avenues to reach more people. He joined Asheville’s YMI Cultural Center, a Black-centered advocacy and support nonprofit, where he is working to scale up the job readiness-peer support program to work with residents from 11 surrounding counties. With a collective $1 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Dogwood Trust Cooper plans to launch the scaled up program sometime next month. The goal, he said, is to support and provide job training, placement and other assistance for 40 to 50 people a year.

Those who choose to participate in the program, he said, will likely need to live in or near Asheville because most recovery resources are in that city. 

“It’s the same thing I’ve been doing since day one,” he said.”It’s just that people are starting to see it working and I’m getting a seat at the table.”

Increasing demand

The pandemic only increased the need for support services for ex-offenders and people with substance use disorders. Earlier this year, state officials settled a lawsuit relating to prison conditions during the COVID-19 outbreak. The state agreed to the early release of 3,500 inmates over six months. With some sectors of the economy being slow to recover, these inmates returning to their communities will likely face high barriers, particularly when it comes to seeking employment. 

At the same time, North Carolina saw a 20 percent spike in overdoses during the early stages of the pandemic. 

With more people coming out of prison and more people returning to substance use, demand for support has already magnified, Cooper said. 

He said he’s already seen the first signs of that increased demand with inmates who couldn’t find service jobs — often the first kind of job people with a criminal record can get — because restaurants and other service-industry businesses remained shuttered. 

Cooper, who was still working at AB Tech back then, asked the college to cut his salary in half. He used that money to help participants with rent and other expenses while they looked for jobs. Cooper saw this rent support as an investment in the participants and the relationship he was building with them.

“You’ve got to love on people if you’re going to hold them accountable,” Cooper said. “Especially with this population.”

Overwhelming barriers 

Back in 2016, Michelle Hurst spent seven months at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women right outside of Asheville. It may as well have been a completely different planet.  

“I didn’t know what to do or who to reach out to,” she said.

Hurst, 33, was a step ahead of many ex-offenders in that she had a place to stay in Asheville. Her parole officer, she knew, wouldn’t be much help beyond making sure she didn’t violate the terms of her release. She was six-and-a-half months pregnant – she found out during her prison term – and needed a job and prenatal care.

“I told my parole officer, ‘Hey, I need a job,’” she recalled. “What they do is print out a list of employers that are felony-friendly. I called one of them and applied and it wasn’t the case.”

She had seen Cooper around and knew about his work at the community college, so she reached out one day to arrange for a meeting. Cooper listened to her. He helped her find resources and sat by her as she called potential employers. 

Cooper offered a safety net where there was none, Hurst said. Within weeks of working with Cooper, Hurst got a job at McDonald’s. Cooper then helped her get training that would eventually land her a job as a peer support specialist at a rehab facility, then at a sober home. He also helped her enroll for the medical assistant program at Blue Ridge Community College.

“The system isn’t always set up for you to be successful,” she said. “I know first hand because, for me, it wasn’t. I feel like if I didn’t know to call Philip, who knows where I would be?”

Cooper wants to offer the same kind of encouragement and support to rural residents in surrounding counties. Because many of these counties don’t have enough recovery resources, Cooper wants these participants to move closer to Asheville, at least at first.

“People from all over are moving here. They start over and then they have a successful life,” he said. “I believe that we can use the same approach with our program.”

Liora Engel-Smith

Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...