For former inmates, mentors make a difference

April 3, 2011 - 9:59pm

By John Hill

Most programs that try to prevent released inmates from going back to prison involve probation officers, job-training classes and counseling visits. But on Wednesday night at the Broad Street offices of OpenDoors this month, it was pizza, backgammon and a book club.

OpenDoors, a nonprofit social-service agency that helps released inmates reenter society, is one of 16 organizations across the country to participate in the Second Chance mentoring program that tries to match recently released inmates with people who can provide them with friendship and guidance as they adapt to the world after prison.

Some of their mentors are ex-inmates who say they get to give the help they’d wish they’d gotten when they were released.

On a recent evening, the program was in high gear. About a dozen mentors and their matches were in the main meeting room at OpenDoors, chatting and joking while others played chess, backgammon or cards. In another room, a smaller group was discussing “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom,” by Don Miguel Ruiz.

(Ruiz’s four guides: Be impeccable with your word; don’t take anything personally; don’t make assumptions; always do your best.)

That kind of socializing might be normal for most Rhode Islanders, said Melissa Grisi, head of the OpenDoors mentoring program, but it can be a revelation for people who grew up in neighborhoods where the major employers were drug dealers.

“It opens up a whole other world to them” she said, “shows them that life doesn’t have to be that way.”

Richard J. Delfino Jr., who oversees probation and parole for the Department of Corrections, said mentoring programs can provide a crucial support. When someone is released from the Adult Correctional Institutions, he or she often returns to the same environment, the same acquaintances, that may have been factors in them committing their original offense.

If those circumstances aren’t changed, he said, the odds of a successful reintegration into society go down.

The state released about 4,000 people from custody last year, and keeping them from becoming repeat offenders is an uphill battle. Statistics show the chances are about 50-50 that someone released from the ACI will be back within three years.

“Any time you can inject a healthy support network, a positive role model, it helps,” Delfino said.

One of those at the gathering was Shanda Smith, who had recently completed a stay at a substance-abuse center and was hoping for a mentor to help her as she worked her way back into a normal life

“This is my first time for ever doing anything like this,” she said. “This is all new to me. I’m looking forward to it, just a cup of coffee, maybe go to a movie together.”

The program is paid for by a two-year $275,000 federal grant and, while it is run independently of the Corrections Department, OpenDoors and the agency work together in finding inmates for it.

Grisi said she was struck during interviews and while reviewing questionnaires by the lack of positive support in inmates’ lives — particularly the men.

“They will often leave the ‘positive role model in life’ line blank, or say I have never had a positive male role model,” she said.

OpenDoors has been recruiting mentors for about a year, via and postings at colleges, but Grisi said the most effective method has been word of mouth. About 20 mentors have been chosen so far, she said. The Corrections Department publicizes it in the ACI, and about 100 inmates there have expressed interest, she said.

Corrections has its own mentoring programs that provide guidance for inmates’ families and for others, such as teachers, who deal with the children of inmates. Grisi said OpenDoors hopes its program will be ongoing and get bigger each year. The goal is to reduce recidivism among the group by 50 percent within five years.

Potential mentors and matches go through a screening, orientation and training process of interviews and questionnaires. About half of the mentor candidates opt out, Grisi said, either due to the time demands or because the problems they will confront are more complex than they expected.

Neither mentors, nor their matches get paid, but both sign a one-year contract, pledging to meet at least four hours a month. Mentors can’t invite their matches to their homes, hire them or their family members or give them money. The two cannot drink alcohol or use controlled substances, and the mentor cannot try to impose his or her political, religious or cultural values.

The interviews and forms are designed to draw out information on backgrounds, interests and hobbies, to make the matches as compatible as possible. Grisi said. Women like to go out for dinner, she said, while gym memberships have been popular for the men.

While a criminal record is often an obstacle to finding a job, Grisi said, in her program, it can help. Someone who has dealt with addiction or a criminal record is well-adapted to helping someone facing those problems.

Mentors come from a wide range, Grisi said. They include a dentist, law students and retirees. There are older ones, like Bill Deveney, a recently retired social-work administrator who said he wanted “to get back to my roots,” and younger people like Ruth Wartenberg, a social worker by day who said she just liked doing it.

“What surprised me is how much I care about her,” she said of her match. “We like to eat Chinese food, and go get a cup of coffee.”

Then there are Angelo Adams and Gary Dantzler. Both served time in the ACI for drug convictions, and both said they wanted to help someone who got out to stay out.

Dantzler said he’d been a promising amateur boxer 20 year ago, and even had a shot at the qualifying rounds for the U.S. Olympic team. But he got involved with drugs instead.

“I could have been one of the greatest boxers,” he said. “I could have been on the Olympic team. But I blew it.”

Mentoring is a way of undoing that damage, he said.

“I understand. I was there,” Dantzler said. “Two days straight, selling drugs, no sleep. All ’round me murderers, bad people. Bad people. I just didn’t pay attention to the right way of doing things.”

Adams got his drug conviction expunged after 15 years, but said he still feels a need to do more to erase it from his life.

“This is like my therapy,” he said. “This is my giveback, my apology to the community.”

Adams said his being able to get his record expunged and finding work can show that it’s possible to reenter society. When he says it’s possible, he said, his life shows it is.

“I know what it’s like to have to check that box, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ ” he said. “You show them how to dress properly, to show up on time. Then, there’s that glow people get, that they now have an opportunity. I’m living proof of that.”



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