Recently I participated in a . The first of its kind in 30 years, the principal aim of the forum was to determine the unmet needs of metro transit users in South County and to reach folks who are isolated or underserved by current metro routes.
At the forum, I was struck by the comments of Danielle Obinger, the bright and effervescent coordinator of Santa Cruz non-profit program, Friends Outside, who spoke eloquently on behalf of some of our most invisible and marginalized transit users: our released inmates. According to Danielle, when inmates are initially released from , they immediately face a formidable hurdle; overwhelmed and without support networks, they are often forced to walk 4 miles into Watsonville because no bus lines service the area surrounding the jail. This first transportation barrier is an apt metaphor for the re-entry process itself; it is a difficult, exhausting journey that is often made alone, without support, or even a map.
The Friends Outside non-profit program exists to provide the map (both literally and metaphorically). Leveraging extensive volunteer support, Friends Outside provides individuals facing re-entry with a myriad of practical supports, from free bus passes and directions to more intensive case management and counseling. This is the kind of support that helps individuals beat addictions, find and keep a job, and successfully reintegrate back into our community. Without this level of support, however, we see a dramatic revolving door effect where close to two-thirds of all released inmates are rearrested within three years. According to Obinger, some never make it past Buena Vista Road before being picked up again for petty violations made out of a sense of desperation (can you say "hitch-hiking"?).
The costs of this high recidivism rate are far-reaching for our community and are especially troubling for young inmates, who, without successful intervention, risk cycling in and out of prison system for decades to come.
Fortunately, we are currently witnessing a flowering of efforts aimed at providing effective alternatives to incarceration and breaking cycles of recidivism. Friends Outside is at the forefront of efforts to break the revolving door cycle in Santa Cruz County and recently launched an innovative program, “R5,” which works to rehabilitate young, male ex-offenders ages 18-25 through pro-social support, namely close mentoring relationships.
The first of it kind in Santa Cruz County, “R5” is a compelling program for several reasons. First and foremost, R5 just might work. Early studies from pilot programs focusing on mentorship as an intervention for this demographic have found that individuals receiving even one month of consistent mentorship from a caring adult upon release were twice as likely to obtain a job and 56 percent more likely to retain employment than released inmates who did not have a mentoring relationship.
Such intensive pro-social support could not come at a better moment for these young men, many of whom have never benefited from a trusted, positive adult mentor and are at high-risk for repeat offenses. Through hours of support and guidance from highly trained volunteer mentors, R5’s young clients have a legitimate chance to land on their feet (with shoes) and develop the connections and life-skills they need to break a cycle that threatens to entrap them long-term.
Often the support offered by a mentors is simple but it makes a critical difference—as it did recently for one Friends Outside client grapping with his re-entry. Feeling deeply lost after his release from state prison, the client began working with a mentor. Together they made a checklist of modest goals for him and arranged to meet on a weekly basis to follow up. Armed with free bus passes and some clothing, the client came back to the office week after week checking off each small goal until he had a resume and a job interview. He completed all of this while homeless and on the waitlist for a shelter. One day at the office, he discovered some kind words that Friends Outside staff and volunteers had written about him and he quiety asked for a copy. He told staff that no one had ever written anything nice about him in his whole life and he wanted a copy because the words made him feel good for the first time in a long time.
The power of these trusted human connections lends R5 a serious positive punch. “R5” is definitely most compelling from the standpoint of community because it offers an unprecedented opportunity to dramatically shift the lives of at-risk young people for good through a highly intentional volunteer role. While the commitment for a volunteer mentor is substantial (volunteers make a minimum two-hour-a-week commitment for at least 6-12 months), the payoffs, both from a professional and personal standpoint, are huge. Volunteer mentors with the R5 program receive monthly trainings and gain experience in case-management and counseling techniques. Simultaneously, they tap into a supportive peer community of R5 mentors and extensive professional networks engaged in restorative justice and re-entry rehabilitation. Most importantly, R5 mentors have an active voice in tailoring a case management plan for their mentee from pre-release to post-release and play a vital role in their recovery and rehabilitation.
Though not without challenges, this mentoring relationship is bound to be life altering for both parties and has the potential to forge greater kinship and promote healing on both a personal and community level. While many individuals might balk at mentoring ex-prisoners, I hope others will recognize this tremendous opportunity to provide a meaningful connection to young people who have been ignored, neglected, and discarded their entire lives, and who could benefit deeply from the undivided attention and compassion of a trusted friend and advisor. This simple act of sharing care and kinship is truly a radical act—and is one with the power to heal and unite our community from within.
R5 is currently seeking to match over 20 young ex-offenders with caring, consistent mentors who are passionate about promoting their successful rehabilitation and growth. To volunteer with R5, you must be at least 28 years old and willing to make a minimum commitment of 6 months. If you would like get involved, or know someone who could make a great mentor, contact R5 coordinator, Kristi Riley, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 831-427-5078