How do you develop the skills to challenge the prison industrial complex, arguing for rehabilitation and treatment? For the homeless advocate, prison reform activist, and therapist-in-training Dante Roussos, a major part of the path has been spending seven formative years studying at Antioch University Seattle (AUS).
Dante began studying in Antioch’s bachelor’s degree program in Health Counseling and Psychology in 2014. Today, they are enrolled in the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with Addiction Counseling at AUS. This all ties in with the work they’ve been doing at a Seattle-area youth homeless shelter. Their story has not yet been written, but it’s clear that their experiences at Antioch have prepared them for an important career helping the powerless and resisting systems that perpetuate violence.
Caring for Those Who Most Need Help
Dante Roussos was born in Seattle to Greek immigrant parents. Their parents had picked the West Coast of the U.S. because they had relatives there, but for Dante, Seattle soon was just home. So when they wanted to get a bachelor’s degree, Dante looked for a local university and chose Antioch University Seattle. They enrolled in the Health Counseling and Psychology program, a specialized bachelor’s degree that prepares students to work as integrated healthcare and mental health workers.
While they were studying for a bachelor’s, they had to meet a requirement that they gain experience in the field of psychology through an internship or volunteering. To meet this requirement, they volunteered in social work at a homeless shelter called The Landing. And in doing so, they found a lifelong passion.
The Landing is a homeless shelter in Redmond—a suburb of Seattle— that aims to support three specific populations: homeless young adults, minors who have been in foster care, and unaccompanied refugee minors. Dante immediately loved working with this population, and by the end of their BA they had spent two quarters volunteering. When you added their volunteer time up, they had spent over 170 hours working at the Landing.
This devotion was impressive enough that the administrators of The Landing turned what had started out as an internship required for graduation into a full-time staff position. Dante became intimately involved in the work of the shelter, not just providing a roof and warm food for at-risk young adults but also helping this community with transitional housing and counseling services.
Today, Dante still works at the Landing. They explain, “I work in the daytime, [help] drop-in [clients], and we do street outreach.” In July they’ll have been working at the shelter for two years. Dante loves the work, but they also see that it can be a valuable “stepping stone” toward the work that they most feel called to do: providing substance abuse counseling to incarcerated people.
Finding a Silver Lining in Tele-Health
After graduating with a BA in health counseling, Dante went on to enroll in Antioch University Seattle’s MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with Addiction Counseling. They enrolled looking forward to in-person classes, but the pandemic forced the hybrid program to go online for the time being. Nonetheless, Dante has decided to look at the challenge of online learning as a positive.
They prefer to look at the “new normal” as preparing them for the new and exciting platform of telehealth—a skill that will allow them to provide counseling in the future. Before the pandemic, they explain, telehealth “was not the standard.” But now, increasingly, it is an important part of every therapist’s practice. And being deeply trained in telehealth is a boon. “It’s good because it gives us a leg up,” explains Dante.
Still, there are drawbacks. Dante notes that the biggest challenge with the program is that students cannot practice therapy in person. Immediate feedback is not always as readily available through Zoom, and there is the distraction of home life to contend with. This has led to less collaboration than Dante had been hoping for when they started on this path. “I know in my bachelor’s I had a lot of time one-on-one, even if it wasn’t about school,” they say. In-person instruction offered proximity and flexibility. As Dante says, “there was time.”
Nonetheless, Dante has found ways to thrive with distanced education, developing strong telehealth skills and nurturing a passion for work reaching those who most need their help.
Working Towards Rehabilitation in a System Focused on Punishment
In their professional future, Dante wants to apply Antioch’s mission of social justice, cultural humility, and systems thinking to their approach to counseling. “A lot of people come into counseling,” says Dante, “because they’re dealing with something super serious—or they just need help.” Regardless of circumstance, Dante is committed to giving help. As they say, “I feel like just being there for somebody is a form of social justice.”
Dante is clear, though, that the people who most need their help are people whose lives are stressed through multiple layers of oppression. Many of those experiencing poverty alongside systemic racism, for instance, have great need of assistance. “People with multi-layered issues,” are often “dealing with severe mental health issues.”
One population Dante is particularly passionate about working with is the incarcerated. She is an advocate for prison reform and points out that except under specific circumstances, counseling and substance abuse help are not available to inmates. This is even more true of a subset of prison populations that often face the most mistreatment and abuse while in prison: sex offenders. Dante is frustrated by how this conflicts with the supposed goal of our system: to rehabilitate the prisoner. Without counseling, the chances of relapse and reoffending became astronomical.
“I don’t think that there’s a lack of people who want to do the work,” they explain. “I just think that it’s the way the prisons are built.”
Prisons and the carceral state around them are not designed to integrate counseling and therapy. At the same time, recidivism rates are ridiculously high. A recent study of almost half a million former prisoners showed that within nine years, 83% had been arrested again. Even more stunning, 45% were re-arrested within the first year of release! Dante believes counseling and therapy offer a path to help prisoners have a fighting chance of not ending up back inside the carceral state.
One thing that seems extra irrational to Dante is the idea that incarcerating sex offenders within general prison populations—where they are regularly targeted for physical and sexual violence as well as severe bullying—is going to improve society in the long run. “They’re basically thrown to the wolves,” Dante says, “and then we expect them to come out” of prison and lead law-abiding, productive lives. That alone would be hard enough, but as ex-cons they face the additional difficulty of having to disclose to employers that they have a felony conviction—and having their names listed on various sex offender registries.
Dante doesn’t advocate just permitting people who have committed these abuses to face no justice. But they see the current system perpetuating and expanding the circle of harm. From a psychological point of view, the trauma experienced in prison often leads to PTSD and substance abuse. And it can exaggerate already-existing conditions—conditions that may have led to the crime for which they were incarcerated in the first place. Dante explains, “Clearly the whole system of just throwing them in there and letting them do their time and come out is not working.”
The work of prison reform is a problem that Dante seems well-prepared to make meaningful change in. They have built a foundation in social justice during their time at Antioch, and they hope that the skills and values they’ve honed will be strong enough for the tough road ahead. Change won’t be easy—when is anything worth doing easy?—but Dante is well along the path of gaining the skills to work from inside the system to make lasting progress towards a system that “rehabilitates instead of locks away.”