When Kathy Griffin-Grinan talks about recovery from drug abuse and mental illness to women who are in prison with sex trafficking and prostitution charges, she speaks from experience.
“I’ve been in their position,” Griffin-Grinan said. She is founder of “We’ve Been There Done That,” a nonprofit that works with prisons in the Houston, Texas area to help women who have been arrested for prostitution and sex trafficking rebuild their lives. She’s also a peer-recovery coach with Santa Maria Hostel, an addiction recovery and treatment center in Houston.
Griffin-Grinan said that the journey that led her to prison began when she moved from Mississippi to Houston to attend college. It was there that she started prostituting herself for money. Drugs followed shortly after, evolving into a thousands-of-dollars-a-month addiction.
Over the intervening years, Griffin-Grinan went to rehab 22 times, but said she never got better, because she never addressed the root problem—the sexual trauma she had endured from incidents as a teenager and from being a prostitute.
“No one ever asked about those experiences when I was going through rehab,” she said.
Griffin-Grinan faced a stark decision when she was arrested for prostitution a sixth time and was found with a crack pipe. She faced 35 years to life in prison.
“I realized if I didn’t change, I was going to spend my life in prison,” she said.
Griffin-Grinan became a “guinea pig” for the Harris County Jail System’s fledgling peer-to-peer counseling program. After taking part in the program, she decided that helping others who were in the same position as her was how she wanted to spend her life. It’s been 12 years since she’s had a drink or used drugs.
These days, Griffin-Grinan works with women mandated to her peer-to-peer program for 90 days to six months before they are released from jail. She guides the best candidates for recovery to Amelia Murphy, director of Recovery Support Services at Santa Maria Hostel. Those who are accepted into the recovery program receive housing, intensive counseling, and are given help developing skills to find a job.
Murphy said 99 percent of the women who come to Santa Maria suffer from post- traumatic stress disorder as a result of experiencing some form of high trauma such as rape, and are often dealing with a mental illness, usually with co-occurring drug and alcohol problems.
The first stages of a person’s path toward recovery begins during Griffin-Grenan’s peer-to-peer classes in prison and continues on her first day of release, when a car driven by a recovery coach from Santa Maria Hostel picks her up from jail and takes her to a treatment center. The recovery coaches are all women who have spent time in prison, and many have experienced symptoms of mental illnesses as well.
Sybil Sybille is a recovery coach and certified peer support specialist for Santa Maria Hostel. The Army veteran is also in long-term recovery for mental health and substance use issues. She was sentenced to prison in 1998 for prostitution and said that she tried to commit suicide several times when she was at her lowest point.
“My struggle was horrible,” she said. “I had to do it on my own. My motivation was that I didn’t want to go back to prison. If there had been peer support services in prison then, they would have helped me develop a plan. Today, I’m able to give support to other women.”
Sybille said that one of her most recent cases reminded her of the importance of the work that Santa Maria Hostel does. The client was a 21-year-old woman who was a victim of sex trafficking. She had a seven-month-old baby and had been off her medication for her mental illness for months. The client had turned in her abuser, but while she was sentenced to jail, he only received probation—a fact that had made her very angry.
Sybille had the woman to focus on what she wanted to do in life. She found out that the young woman used to be play first-chair cello at her high school, and had wanted to go to college to continue her music education.
“We removed the abuser from the equation because all she can do at this point is to control and change herself,” she said.
When women stay at the Santa Maria Hostel, they have access to counselors and are given assistance applying to school and accessing local health organizations, among other supports, to help them rebuild their lives.
“After we talked and I shared my experiences, she realized that I could relate to what she was going through,” Sybille said.
She said the most satisfying part of her job is seeing her client’s recovery.
“When the woman left the meeting she was smiling, empowered, and was full of confidence,” Sybille said. “I wanted her to understand that she can do anything in life. I’m a living breathing example of how you can turn your life around.”