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Home Free: Mentoring Prisoners

John Page has a conviction that mentoring prisoners truly makes a difference in the world. This deeply held notion comes from the experience he has gained through his third "career." After a 20-year stint in the Army and later teaching students in Texas, Page then volunteered in a halfway house for prisoners. When he relocated to Kansas, he began mentoring inmates from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth through the Life Connections Program.

Page, 63, spends every Monday morning at the federal prison, engaging in one-on-one discussions with the man he mentors—his fourth prisoner. "We talk about what they want to talk about, whether it’s sports, or how to love their wife, or the responsibility of being a dad, or everyone’s obligation as a citizen of the community," Page says. "I try to build a rapport. Mentors are bridge builders and heart changers."
 
The 18-month, faith-based program in five prisons (Michigan, Kansas, Texas, Virginia, and Indiana) is sponsored by Volunteers of America, a nonprofit that partners with the Federal Bureau of Prisoners to reduce recidivism and strengthen an inmate’s relationships with family, future co-workers, and community through his religious beliefs. Mentors, who receive training and ongoing support, almost exclusively work with men and women still incarcerated, although a small number of volunteers spend time helping inmates who are living in halfway houses to prepare for jobs and "real" life.

Other programs around the country, on the other hand, focus on mentoring released convicts. Consider the Loudoun Aftercare Program. New to Lansdowne, Va., Debora Lavin had gone online to find volunteer opportunities and "give back." She saw a need to address the plight of recently released prisoners and so, in 2006, she founded a one-year mentoring program. Like most offender counseling programs, hers is faith-based. (They certainly don’t have to be.) In the Loudoun Aftercare Program, ex-cons attend the same church as their mentors and participate in prayer and other activities. They’re buoyed by the congregation, widening their support net as they make their way in the larger world. 

Lavin, 50,  has helped ex-cons write résumés , groomed them to dress appropriately for job interviews and the workplace, and coached them to conduct themselves professionally (such as calling the boss if they can’t make it to work rather than simply not showing up). She oversees more than a dozen mentors, who might contact an employer on behalf of an ex-prisoner, letting them know the candidate has a solid support system. The program also works with area businesses to get them to hire former offenders. "We help them through decision making in their jobs and everything else they do in their lives," Lavin says. "Transitioning back into the community is very difficult and scary for them."
 
Many believe they have irrevocably severed ties with family and friends. "I’ve seen them rebuild relationships that have been broken and that they thought could never be rebuilt," Lavin notes. She recalls one woman who reunited with her estranged daughter; today they work side by side in a restaurant. "It’s so satisfying to work directly with people and watch them reintegrate themselves into the community again," Lavin says.

Amen, says Page, who mentors in the prison chapel’s classrooms. "What I’m doing is getting them ready both psychologically and spiritually to face a world where convicted felons are looked down upon. I try to make each man I mentor understand that he is a precious creation and that his life is valuable," Page adds. "My purpose is to make a difference to men who are damaged and need someone to care." He understands from personal experience. "I was a prisoner to alcohol. I know what it was to be imprisoned with a habit, and I know what it is to be free from the habit."

Sober for 29 years now, the former Army officer teaches the prisoners about responsibility and accountability. "It’s been a wonderful experience for me. I’m at a transformative point with the guy I’m mentoring. He knows that he’s made mistakes, but he has accepted responsibility for them and chosen a lifestyle that will allow him to be successful," Page says. “Accountability is the best form of support."

Support is essential to reducing recidivism, and experts agree that there are not nearly enough programs or prison mentors to address the need. Fortunately, the numbers are improving. Lavin now receives calls from people who are starting similar programs and need advice. Taking up this cause is a win-win situation, Lavin believes. "I often get more out of it than the person I’m helping. To see them accomplish their goals is thrilling."

To volunteer at a prison, go to your church, synagogue, or mosque and see if there’s interest. Or Google "prison aftercare," "aftercare mentor," "aftercare prison mentoring," or “aftercare network."

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