Prisoner mentor program aims to reduce recidivism rates
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — By the time Jasmine Marquez reached her early 20s, methamphetamine had become the most important thing in her life.
It eclipsed the love for her children — and their need for a mother.
“It’s all I wanted to do or spend money on,” Marquez said. “The ones that needed me the most, I wasn’t thinking about them.”
Marquez, 24, of Twin Falls, was eventually convicted on drug charges. When she failed to stay clean during probation, she was sent to serve six months in the state’s Retained Jurisdiction Program in 2016.
Being sent to prison was devastating. Her four children were split up, and she didn’t know if she would ever get her family back together.
But prior to her release from the prison program, she realized she needed help to rebuild her life. She asked for a community mentor through the Idaho Department of Correction’s Free2Succeed program and was assigned a program volunteer, Stephanie Ford, of Twin Falls.
The friendship and support Ford offered turned out to be just what Marquez needed to pull herself up.
Ninety-five percent of people incarcerated in Idaho prisons are released into the community at some point, said Jeff Kirkman, Idaho Department of Correction program director.
State lawmakers in 2014 passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which put money into rehabilitation programs instead of into building new prisons.
To help alleviate the state’s recidivism rate, Kirkman was tasked with developing the Free2Succeed program, which uses community mentors to offer guidance and be role models for newly released parolees.
The program, launched in early 2016, still has a small sample size, but early returns indicate it may be pivotal in reducing Idaho’s recidivism rate. The Free2Succeed program doesn’t shy away from using former inmates or people on probation or parole as mentors. Instead, the program sees an opportunity for former inmates to help parolees transition into the outside world.
If former inmates can’t find the necessary resources like a job and housing to assimilate into society, they are more likely to reoffend. That affects everyone in the community, not just the ones directly connected to the offender.
“It hits the taxpayers in the pocket,” Kirkman said. “We have to get them connected back into the community again.”
Since the Free2Succeed program began, demand has surpassed resources. About 300 people have applied to be mentors statewide, but more than 700 prisoners have asked for a mentor.
“We want every single one of those to have a mentor,” Kirkman said. “I know that’s a lofty goal.”
In the Magic Valley, there were 23 active mentors in early February, and more are needed.
The state recidivism rate for prisoners is 35 percent. Offenders who were imprisoned for parole violations average about 3 percentage points higher.
“It’s a revolving door,” Kirkman said.
But in 2017, the state recidivism rate for inmates matched with a mentor was about 4 percent.
“That rate really speaks to the potential of having a mentor in their life in a pro-social way,” Kirkman said.
Unlike many prison mentorship programs, Free2Succeed does not prohibit mentors from having a criminal record. Prospective mentors must fill out a form, be approved and complete training to begin.
“A mentor can be anyone, even someone on supervision,” Kirkman said. “There are not a lot of restrictions. It’s more about what can you offer.”
Mentors who have already been through the post-prison transition can provide insight into the process, and establishes immediate credibility with the mentee.
“When people come out of prison and go back to Burley or Twin Falls, that’s really where the rubber hits the road,” Kirkman said.
If a soon-to-be-released prisoner expresses interest in the program, information is provided. The inmate then requests a mentor, and contact by phone begins before the prisoner is released.
Male prisoners are assigned to male mentors and female prisoners to female mentors, but some couples opt to mentor prisoners in tandem. Along the way, mentors work closely with probation and parole offices.
Senior Probation and Parole Officer David Burgara said the mentors are another resource for the office.
“They are an extra set of eyes if someone is messing up. They inform us so we can work to get them on the right path,” Burgara said.
Pairing mentors with inmates, especially ones who are at a higher risk of recidivism, takes some strain off of parole and probation officers.
“It gives us another tool in our belt,” said probation officer Jayone Fitzhugh said.
Mark Person, of Boise, thought he’d never walk out of the Idaho maximum security prison. His prison term for second-degree murder, handed down in 2005, was set to expire in 2051.
“I thought I’d do all of it. I thought I’d die there, and I’d wrapped my head around it,” Person said.
A disabled U.S. Navy veteran, Person’s life careened downward in a series of events around the turn of the century, including depression, back surgeries, a divorce and homelessness.
He began to ease his misery with drugs and eventually became immersed in the seedier side of the city. After a drug deal that went bad, he took a man’s life.
“I needed to pay for my crime,” he said. “I killed a man.”
But Idaho’s crowded prisons and Person’s good behavior behind bars meant that when his case went before the parole commission in 2015, they swung the doors open for him to leave in July 2016. In all, he spent 15 years in prison.
He was not prepared for how terrifying life outside of prison would be.
The men he befriended inside had become his family, and the prison’s rigid schedule had made all of his decisions for nearly a decade and a half.
There was no easing back into society; it happened in an instant.
He worried about seeing old acquaintances at the grocery store who would remember his haunted past.
“I felt like I had a scarlet letter on my chest, and everyone who would see me would know what I’d done,” he said.
Person, recognizing that he needed assistance, requested a mentor through the newly-minted Free2Succeed program.
“My situation was different from most inmates,” Person said. As a disabled veteran, he had his basic needs met, like clothing, housing and food.
Most people are not so lucky. Inmates get help with 30 days of housing at a halfway house, but the time starts ticking the second they walk out of the prison gate.
Person recognized how lucky he was, both to have some of his basic needs met and for the mentorship he received. He knew immediately that he wanted to pay it forward, and signed up to be mentor in the same program.
He developed his own style, which he calls Day One. He picks up the newly-free citizen at the prison gates and gets him his first cup of coffee. He then follows a route around town, helping the mentee get clothing vouchers, hygiene items and a bus pass.
He also takes the mentee to the all-important first probation and parole office visit. He then takes them to Health and Welfare for a food card and settles them into to the halfway house.
“Rent is due in 30 days, and when you don’t have a job that can be scary,” Person said.
Even after Day One is complete, he stays in contact as the mentee adjusts to society and the demands of a fast-paced world.
“That first week is so crucial,” he said.
Prisoners often spend countless hours dreaming about things they’ll do when they’re free, but it doesn’t take long for the harshness of reality to settle.
Person guides the mentee toward good decisions, a skill that may be rusty or sometimes non-existent, and helps them focus on practical matters that will make their lives easier. One of his top priorities is finding a job close to the mentee’s apartment — an important detail, he said, when the mentee doesn’t have a car.
So far, Person has mentored seven prisoners.
“A couple were failures and reoffended,” he said. “When they went back, it was heartbreaking. But five of them are doing phenomenally well.”
Some of them, he said, want to become mentors too.
Person agrees that the program is successful because it doesn’t shun former inmates as mentors.
“I’m passionate about this. I want to help these guys coming out and give them a foundation,” Person said.
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com