Harm Reduction Meets People Where They’re at, Unless They’re at a Prison

    Harm reductionists on the outside often say the work happens in a legal gray area. That real harm reduction plays out in the shadows; never in collaboration with cops. If you’re serious about getting things done, then you better be willing to break the law.

    In our experience, those who define harm reduction this way don’t work with people on the inside and don’t intend to. Sometimes they assume that because prisoners aren’t allowed to use drugs or have sex, that means they’re not. But usually it’s because they think of harm reduction and incarceration as separate issues, rather than of harm reduction as meeting people where they’re at, and prisons as where those people are.

    Syringe service program (SSP) peers and participants, people at high risk of overdose, people trying to access medication for opioid use disorder, people with HIV and viral hepatitis and system-impacted people kept in poverty—these are not separate populations from the people who go to prison. They’re the same people. It’s just a matter of whether they’re inside or outside at a given point in time.

    Many people currently in prison would be excellent SSP peer workers, if they were allowed to work. The ones doing a lot of time are the ones navigating short-timers through the internal systems of their DOC, because they’re sick of seeing the same people sent back in over and over. They operate with no resources and entirely inside the confines of the law, because that’s where they have to live.

    None of the sixteen prisoners reached by Filter knew they could request an outside re-entry navigator.

    Jonathan, for instance, is currently incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center (WCC) where he’s a teacher assistant for re-entry workshops, which become available to prisoners in the final six months of their sentence. But six months is not enough time to plan a re-entry. It’s just not. People are trying to figure out where they’ll live, but they can’t call or email government offices. No one secures housing via snail mail.

    Jonathan helps them locate resources, but he doesn’t have access to the internet. He doesn’t have any kind of internal directory of local re-entry resources, because Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) doesn’t have one and has declined multiple opportunities to acquire ones created by other entities. WDOC has also repeatedly declined to put re-entry information on Securus, where prisoners would actually be able to read it themselves.

    Jonathan has previously facilitated workshops covering safer injection, safer sex and safer tattooing. He was able to do so because a 501(c)3 nonprofit contracted with WDOC to do harm reduction work. Critical partnerships like that almost never happen, and they should.

    SSP need to work with DOC in order to work with the people already supporting re-entry from the inside. Long-timers like Jonathan could build re-entry curriculums by pooling the needs of the people who’d be using them with the outside knowledge of SSP peers, and then those peers could simply get volunteer badges and bring them inside.

    At Washington prisons, volunteers can be on medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD). They can have felony records. They need to have been out of prison for at least a year, but there are volunteers at WCC who’ve only been out for two.

    In addition to incarceration, police encounters increase fatal overdose and HIV transmission. But once people are incarcerated and surrounded by cops all the time, SSP stop outreaching them. Not just because of access barriers, but because of a belief that corrections departments provide services for the people they warehouse.

    Corrections departments do not provide services. They do not connect prisoners to anyone who does. They provide food, water and a bed—not necessarily all at the same time or with any consistency.

    Without outside partnerships, Jonathan’s unable to make direct contact with anyone doing community re-entry work—even the re-entry navigators employed by WDOC itself.

    “I’ve done no re-entry process … I’m [out] the gate and I’ve got nothing.”

    Eligible WDOC prisoners can request a navigator be assigned to them by filling out an Essential Needs Survey and an Individual Reentry Plan.

    However, six people in WCC with release dates less than 30 days away from publication of this article told Filter they weren’t aware that the process nor the navigators themselves existed. An additional eight people slated for release within the next three months said the same. The only two prisoners Filter spoke with who did know WDOC had re-entry navigators had previously been assigned to one, and still did not know how that had happened.

    Michael Hauge walked out of WCC on June 27. He finished his 42-month sentence, some of it inside prison and some of it outside under supervision. When Hauge became eligible for electronic home monitoring through Graduated Reentry (GRE), a WDOC counselor gave him a bunch of forms, which he filled out without knowing what they were for.

    In December 2021, WDOC revoked his GRE and returned him to prison. He never heard from his navigator after that. In order to get one again he’d have had to fill out the forms again, but he didn’t know this since he hadn’t known he’d filled them out in the first place.

    “I’ve done no re-entry process … since my GRE was revoked,” Hauge told Filter. “I’m [out] the gate and I’ve got nothing.”

    WDOC had asked him for an address, and eventually accepted one for a halfway house. That was his re-entry preparation.

    If navigators work for the prison system, they’re going to navigate people right back into it.

    In response to Filter‘s inquiries on the scope of WDOC’s outside navigators, the department stated that the “navigator unit … takes referrals from staff and various stakeholders which includes … [i]ndividuals with high medical/mental health needs at risk of decompensation or death related to health needs post release.”

    This would mean prisoners whose overdose risk is about to go up several orders of magnitude can refer themselves to be assigned a navigator. But they’re never told this. There is a comprehensive plan for communication between navigators and prisoners they’re assigned to, but none of it applies before then.

    “I got out on GRE and got it revoked,” said Aaron Pollak, the only other person reached by Filter who knew about the WDOC navigators. I’m four months from my release date, and I have no re-entry stuff. They asked me for an address. That’s it.” Like Hauge, he’d filled out the forms without realizing.

    Outside re-entry navigators are a very good idea. Every prison should have them. But they need to not be corrections staff. They should be from the community outside, like SSP peers, and they should not limit outreach to the people six months away from release. They should outreach everyone with a release date.

    SSP peer working as re-entry liaisons could connect people with the resources they actually need. They’re often familiar with their state’s probationary system. They’re familiar with the government assistance programs and how to advocate for access to MOUD. They know where it’s safe to pitch a tent. They know the drug supply. And, critically, they know how to navigate people out of the cycle of criminalization. Navigators who work for the prison system are just going to navigate people right back into it.

    Even harm reduction workers are already too late if they only meet people six months from the gate.

    We know this requires funding. High-barrier government grants are rarely earmarked for harm reduction, even if the language claims it. However, this kind of work could tap into separate government funds earmarked for re-entry.

    Until July 5, the Washington State Department of Commerce is accepting proposals for community-based groups to create or expand re-entry services, including housing and employment. Though it says it’s meant for people who are “currently and formerly” incarcerated, it’s obviously not intended to give anyone currently in prison a say in the applications sent on their behalf.

    For one thing, the information is all online. For another, prisoners aren’t eligible to apply; but harm reduction nonprofits are.

    Even SSP are already too late if they don’t start working with someone until they’re six months from the gate, let alone until the moment they walk out. That’s not when they rejoin the harm reduction community. They never left.



    Photograph of Stafford Creek Corrections Center via Washington State Department of Corrections

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”


      Kastalia is Filter‘s deputy editor. She previously worked at a number of other media outlets and wouldn’t recommend the drug coverage at any of them. When not at Filter, she works with drug users in NYC and drug checkers in North Carolina to track hyperlocal supply changes, and cohosts a national stimulant users call with Isaac Jackson. 

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