BOISE, Idaho — Adjusting to everyday life after spending a prolonged period of time in prison isn’t easy, especially as our everyday lives have changed so much because of the pandemic. But a statewide program is pairing up returning citizens with mentors who can help them walk through life’s challenges no matter how big or small.
The goal of the Free 2 Succeed Mentor Program is to reduce recidivism rates by giving returning citizens a positive influence in their lives.
“It really behooves us to look at ways that we can help support those individuals so they don’t go back into those old behaviors, and fall in with the old crowd, and all that other kind of stuff,” program manager Jeff Kirkman said.
Program leaders hope to pair every person released to probation or parole with a mentor who can assist them in finding necessary support groups, teaching them to use a cell phone, or even simply how to choose groceries off store shelves.
“For someone who’s not been in society for ten years, or whatever amount of time, those can be significant triggers that might lead to some behaviors that might put them back into prison, and that’s what we don’t want,” Kirkman said.
Keri Mendive understands the importance of the program better than most people. After a decade of addiction and arrests, she realized she needed to make some major life changes. Mendive was paired with a mentor upon release from prison five years ago.
“Gone from prison to purpose is what I say,” Mendive said. “I needed to change what I was doing, where I was; and having a mentor made me accountable to more than just myself, and that was really helpful.”
Mendive’s mentor, Debra, ended up being her best friend until Debra lost her battle with cancer in 2020. She helped Mendive get a driver’s license and secure transportation and housing immediately upon release.
“We have a lot of retirees who will drive them to appointments, who will take them to church with them or help them get enrolled in school and really get involved in that person’s life,” Kirkman said.
Quite often those connections include introductions to support groups for drug or alcohol addiction.
“I’ve been in prison, I’ve been in jail, I’ve been in all of those places, and I feel like the common denominator always is addiction and mental illness,” Mendive said. “There’s no question.”
In 2020, more than half of people released to probation or parole in Idaho were incarcerated for drug or alcohol-related crimes.
Upon release, a mentor steps in as an extra set of eyes end ears to watch out for signs of relapse.
“We try to have enhancement training on what does it look like if someone is relapsing, what the changed behavior is, how you can address it, how you can help hold them accountable,” Nikisha Chapman said. Chapman is an Americorps VISTA with the program and helps pair returning citizens with mentors in the Boise area.
“A lot of [mentors] do know where some really good AA classes and other programs they can get involved with, and a lot of them go to those classes and programs with their mentee,” Kirkman said.
Mendive has now been sober for six years and went from mentee to mentor, helping more than a dozen returning citizens adjust to life on the outside.
Her experience with addiction helps her guide those mentees with a little tough love.
“I tell them, ‘Okay, well I’m not buying that; Remember, I am you. I’m not your [parole officer], I’m not your mom, I’m not your dad. I’m not buying that. You need to do this or you’re going to end up back where you were,’” Mendive said.
Kirkman says many mentors who are returning citizens themselves quickly learn by serving someone else they’re also helping themselves.
“Those that are on supervision, what we’re finding that it’s solidified their success on supervision,” Kirkman said. “It’s made them stronger at being a better person, changing behaviors, making their lives better, in addition to helping somebody else.”
IDOC currently has about 500 active mentors for the entire state, but with citizens returning to society every day, they’re looking for many more.
Anyone 25 or older who is interested in becoming a mentor can easily apply online.