May 14, 2018

The justice of hope: Innovative program finds mentors and role models for returning citizens

Idaho Department of Corrections program Free2Succeed relies on 'compassion, commitment, and determination'

A community mentoring program in Idaho aims to give returning citizens the tools they need to succeed post-prison. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Free2Succeed, an innovative, community-based adult offender mentoring program aimed at cutting the recidivism rate in Idaho, first had to “break” all the rules and stand conventional wisdom on its head.

The program did this by removing obstacles the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC) had long had in place on those recently released from prison, such as personal contact with offenders and working closely with their probation and parole officer to become appropriate advocates, basically, allowing them to become close associates and friends and engage in meaningful and pro-social ways. It’s simple— provide opportunities for offenders to be successful and recognize what it is possible, and is working, without sacrificing the fundamentals of safety and security and the department’s mission of protecting the public.

Free2Succeed derives its name from three distinct principals:

1. The offender is “free” from the physical environment of incarceration and now has more opportunities to be successful in the community.

2. Although an individual’s thoughts can never be confined, after release, an offender has the freedom to begin acting on those thoughts which also tends to spur different thoughts like “now that I’m out, what now?”

3. As a large agency in the state of Idaho with a large footprint, we want to “free” the members of communities where these individuals are being released to step up and assist in ways they feel comfortable with, where their expertise may lie, and according to their hearts and passion.

Matching Inmates with Mentors

Inmates are provided with many tools during incarceration and the hope is that they utilize those tools appropriately once released. For many, the barrier to effective utilization of those tools is how they use those tools. So many offenders are being released without the experience, knowledge, or the confidence to be successful even though they may have all the tools necessary to do so.

Mentors are part of a total package of wraparound services for those who take advantage of them. Mentors can use their experience, empathy, and knowledge to guide and coach an offender during their transition to society with the goal of creating lasting and effective relationships.

Many inmate mentoring programs throughout the country provide “reach in” services—mentors who go into an institution for an extended period to build relationships and trust with the inmate before release. There is a lot of value with this approach but in Idaho there were some significant obstacles. Most inmates are released into population centers scattered throughout Idaho.

Most of our institutions are concentrated in the Boise area, with two in very small communities in north Idaho and one in Pocatello, so it really did not make sense for mentors to develop solid mentorships while they were still incarcerated only to have the inmate released into an area hundreds of miles away. That is why the focus is on locating a mentor where the inmate will be released, rather than while they are still in prison.

Any inmate can request a mentor but we try to focus on those that have a higher risk of recidivating. The request is a simple form that is completed by the inmate with some basic questions about where they will be going, what their needs might be, and their expectations of being a mentee and having a mentor. The offender must be within 90 days of a release date in order for us to start looking for a mentor for them. Once a mentor is located, the IDOC facilitates and pays for the phone call for the inmate to contact the mentor and begin the discussion of what and how the mentor might be able to help him/her.

Once the offender is released, the mentor is there to start helping. We have the mentor, the offender, and the probation and parole (P&P) officer meet as soon as possible to continue the discussion of what the mentorship might look like. The mentor is provided with the information needed to help the offender succeed, i.e. conditions of supervision and anything else that is necessary. Other things discussed at this meeting are accountability, roles of the mentor vs. role of the P&P officer, etc.

If an inmate is not matched with a mentor before his/her release, they can still request one while on supervision. We have a link where they can electronically submit a request for a mentor. This is very helpful for those who think they may not need one while incarcerated but after they get out realize that a mentor can be beneficial.

During the mentorship, the mentor will report back to the parole officer (PO) periodically via an online reporting form that mirrors the supervision standards and techniques of the probation and parole staff. This helps everyone involved work toward the same goal of successful reentry into society. The key is open communication between all those who are involved in the success of an individual offender.

I have witnessed miraculous changes in people who have leaned on their mentor during times of uncertainty, relapse, coping issues, lack of unemployment, family issues, and a host of others that they face upon reentry. Mentors will go with the offender to office visits to check in with their PO, to court, and other community support meetings.

The simplicity and beauty of this program is rather than relying on policy and procedure to determine the success, we rely on the compassion, commitment, and determination of our mentors, many whom are currently on supervision themselves, to help someone else in need.

Jeff Kirkman

Jeff Kirkman has worked for the Idaho Department of Correction for 17 years, including being the warden of the state’s largest multi-custody female facility in Pocatello. Returning to Boise, he developed the Free2Succeed program, which has garnered widespread recognition and success.