A few years ago I started mentoring women parolees. It has been an amazing experience. For me a white, suburban woman raised upper middle class for most of my adult life, meeting my parolee changed my outlook for good. My mentee is a wonderfully smart 36 year old women who spent 17 1/2 years in prison from age 15 1/2 to 32.
She was only the second child tried as an adult. She was a gang member who fired a gun into a crowd hitting no one and killing no one yet was tried for attempted murder instead of the plea promised assault with a deadly weapon. Fast forward 17 years and she is finally paroled after completing her time with great skills and a positive attitude. It took ten years in prison before she got it together as she was very angry that her teenage years were taken from her. She accepted her incarceration totally and took full responsibility for every part of it.
I met her a month out. We were introduced by an organization, that unfortunately lost their funding because of budget constraints, whose record was fabulous and their return rate to prison was less than 5% of the people mentored. Like Homeboys in Los Angeles, another organization that has successfully run a business operation for previous gang members and one that had an unbelievable record, that closed.
Mentoring works and it saddens me and angers me that these programs are lost when more prisons and incarceration take precedent and everyone wants to build places to house rather than programs that perform.
My mentee works full time, She has her own place now and is supporting herself. She is a model citizen and had she grown up in a home in a middle class suburb she would have gone to college. She would have been successful if just someone had taken an interest in her. She was smart and in school but acting out and no one paid attention. Her Mom was busy working to support her family. Her step dad had a business. Everyone was too busy surviving. One never understands all the ins and out of people's lives but environment of course plays a big part as well as genetics. But in this case I believe it was the environment.
When she got out she was like a teenager whose life had somewhat stopped at age 15 1/2. For example, she immediately thought she could walk into the DMV without ever driving a car and actually pass. I explained she could certainly try but after she failed twice she took my advice and had some lessons. We still laugh about that almost 4 years later. She called me to ask how you cook things and how to make choices in the market for food and how to talk to people on the outside. She learned recently how to make choices that we take for granted. When you are not given choices you don't know how to make good ones or sometimes any at all.
She did have amazing carpenter skills, speaking skills (Toastmaster in prison) and writing skills all learned in prison. She took advantage of every program in prison including getting first a GED (all that was offered originally) and then an actual high school diploma.
I have found that mentoring is a fabulous outlet for exiting prisoners. This is where our emphasis should be. Pair someone from prison with someone who has worked in the community, lives a good life and understands how to work within the system. A person who is responsible and a person who will be there and listen to their ideas and goals and dreams and then help them realize it is indeed possible for anyone who does the work to achieve greatness.
I am so proud to have been a part of a young woman who I have grown to love as if she were my own daughter. We hang out. We visit museums, art galleries and go to plays. These outings were never in her life before. To have watched her at her first play was amazing. She has given me far more gifts than I have given her but she would say it was me finding her. Really it was both of us finding each other.