Jailhouse Redemption

“Jailhouse Redemption” premiered in May on Discovery+

Boston College graduate Ian Roeber talked with a group of women in a jail in Chesterfield, Virginia, saying that they could help change the way the public views drug addiction. It was 2021, and he was being filmed for a documentary series that follows staff and inmates who are part of the heroin-addiction recovery program at the correctional facility. 

“I’m not trying to start a revolution but, you know, I think you all have a big piece of this puzzle figured out from your own experience and people need to know about it,” Roeber told the women in the program. “It’s a very important piece, someone that’s been through this recovery process, through jail, through HARP, to be those voices, right?” 

Roeber, a senior clinician at the Chesterfield County Jail, never imagined that he would be counseling his clients for a national audience. But there he was, doling out nuggets of wisdom to a group of women in recovery for a new docuseries on Discovery+ called “Jailhouse Redemption.”

Roeber is featured prominently in the fourth episode of the series, which The New York Times described as ​​a “potent critique of carceral responses to medical and psychological problems.” He agreed with that assessment in an interview after the series premiered in May, adding that the show does a good job of humanizing people in recovery.  

“I think people in recovery should be at the forefront of talking about recovery,” said Roeber, who graduated from the M.S.W./M.A.dual degree program in social work and theology and ministry in 2017. “If we were to take their expertise and their voices to a larger level, whether it be through policy or structural changes, I think it could be pretty powerful.”

Ian Roeber

Ian Roeber. Courtesy photo.

Roeber took a roundabout route to the Chesterfield County Jail, where he’s worked since November 2020. But his past experiences have prepared him to amplify the voices of people whose heroin addictions have cut them off from their families, made it difficult to find work, and, in some cases, brought them to the brink of death. 

After graduating from Gonzaga University in 2009 with a degree in broadcast journalism, Roeber worked at a homeless shelter in Idaho and at a domestic violence shelter in Alaska. He remembers his job responsibilities well—providing bus passes, teaching young men how to combat gender stereotypes—but it was hearing the harrowing stories of his clients that really stuck with him.

“I was trained as an undergrad to always be on the lookout for stories and to be conscious of when a good story arose,” said Roeber, who spent a total of two years in Idaho and Alaska as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. “But in those years of service, I also realized that people carry around their own stories as well, and that they really shape their lives in pretty large ways.”

Roeber practices narrative therapy with his clients at the jail, encouraging them to externalize problems and create stories to reconsider situations from more positive points of view. He learned the method from Steve Gaddis, a former faculty member in the Boston College School of Social Work who passed away in Jaunary, and has used it with inmates in the HARP program to preserve their dignity while acknowledging the effects that addiction has had on their lives. 

“I always try to separate the person from the problem,” said Roeber, who studied in the mental health field of practice. “It’s really important, particularly with addiction, because it’s so easy to take on the stigmas about being an addict in our world, and taking that on that doesn’t actually help you heal.”

During one group therapy session in the docuseries, Roeber wondered how people with heroin addictions would be treated if more law enforcement officials knew how trauma could lead to drug use. “What if our legal system had an understanding of trauma,” he asked the women in HARP, “you know, the judges of Chesterfield County.”

“Judges, like, don’t want to hear it,” one member of the program said in response. “Like, addicts are not just junkies and thieves, like, we are people too.”

I always try to separate the person from the problem. It’s really important, particularly with addiction, because it’s so easy to take on the stigmas about being an addict in our world, and taking that on that doesn’t actually help you heal.
Ian Roeber, senior clinician at the Chesterfield County Jail

Roeber honed his particular brand of therapy during his internships as a student at BC. He provided one-on-one therapy to men with substance use disorder at the High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, Massachusetts, during his first experiential learning opportunity, working to incorporate narrative therapy into their sessions. “What if we start trying to play with these stories about ourselves and see if that’s helpful for folks?” Roeber recalled thinking. “So I began to dabble in this work, experimenting with externalizing relationships with addiction.”

His second internship, at the Suffolk County Jail in Boston, gave him the space to work with inmates and focus on the humanity of incarcerated people. He made clinical assessments, ran a group therapy session, and worked with individuals in the segregation unit. “We often define people in a correctional facility by the reason they’re there,” said Roeber. “And we have to be careful about trying to maintain that this is a person and that they have their own autonomy, agency, and dignity.”

His curriculum in the HARP program now includes a unit on neuroscience and how heroin use can rewire the brain. He credited BCSSW associate professor Jessica Black with helping him understand how the brain works and said that his lessons incorporate videos that Black sent him for the program. 

“We talk about why people do certain things underneath the influence of these drugs, why withdrawals happen, and why there’s significant long term impacts of drug use,” said Roeber, who took every course Black taught at BC. “I kind of go from a basic level of having fun learning about what the brain can do to how drugs actually affect it.”

He acknowledged that the film crew initially distracted him as he worked with the inmates in the HARP program. But he got more comfortable with the cameras over time and even used his knowledge of broadcast journalism to suggest a few places for the producer to shoot some footage. He said he wanted to help the crew tell an accurate and thoughtful story while maintaining the confidentiality of the inmates, some of whom requested to share particularly personal details of their lives off camera.

“It’s hard not to think about the questions you’re asking and how the conversation is going when it’s being filmed,” he said. “But you have to push against that, keep operating in an authentic way, and keep moving forward.”