Denver's 'tough love' therapy aims to turn lives around

Tue Dec 8, 2015 6:44am EST
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(Reuters) - Paul Thompson started sniffing glue at 10 years old. It seemed harmless enough at first but it was the first step on a road to addiction and crime. 

At 17 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a court in Boulder, Colorado for armed robbery. After his release he spent further stints in prison for parole violations, Thompson says.

Shunned by family and friends, Thompson says he had no one to call. That’s when, in 1989, the "tough love" of Peer 1 in Denver, Colorado, came in. He contacted the facility on the advice of a fellow inmate, and, aged 36, was accepted into the program. More than two decades later Thompson is still at the treatment center, where he is now the assistant director.

Men at the 126-bed drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, many having spent years in and out of prison, are responsible to each other. If one breaks the rules, others are obliged to report it or suffer the same sanctions imposed by their Peer 1 brothers.

With histories of abuse as children and living on the streets, the men live in for up to 12 months. The therapy comprises sessions from family group therapy to confrontational group accountability sessions and trust-building exercises.

"It’s hard for a person who's been a criminal all his life to tell on another Peer brother," says Thompson. "We teach them 'no more victim, no more victimizing'," he says. "It’s OK to hold someone accountable."

Peer 1 is a Therapeutic Community where members work to change their lifestyles and support each other. More than 600 such programs operate in the United States and Canada, focused on substance use and mental health, according to Treatment Communities of America, a professional association.


Jonathan C. (L) holds his "issue card" with other new Peer 1 clients in the orientation phase, in Denver November 2, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking