- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

SHOSHONE, Idaho (AP) - Staying clean. Getting a job. Avoiding the wrong people. Getting out of prison isn’t just a matter of walking through the gates to freedom.

For many, it’s rebuilding a life.

A new mentor program through the Idaho Department of Correction is keeping parolees on the straight and narrow. But now, it needs more volunteers, reported The Times-News (https://bit.ly/2jw8U6s).

About 150 mentors statewide have completed applications to take part in the Free2Succeed program, and the state wants to double that number by July, said Jeff Kirkman, the program’s manager. Just in the Magic Valley, IDOC is looking for 40 more mentors to match with offenders who will soon be released and have requested mentors.

“A community mentor can help an offender in so many ways that staff may not be able to,” Kirkman said. “Bottom line is that the mentor will help connect the offender back into the community in positive and productive ways.”

IDOC launched the program in early 2016.

“Preferably, it would be fantastic to have a mentor assigned to every individual who is transitioning from incarceration to community and for those who are currently on supervision,” Kirkman said in an email. “However, realistically, if only 5 percent (of) those were matched with a mentor, the number of mentors needed statewide would be about 1,000 (to) 1,200.”

People who are interested in mentoring can apply online and then attend a four-hour training session. The schedule for the training sessions is available on IDOC’s website.

The program aims to “help those who are releasing from incarceration to the community connect with resources that will enable a successful transition,” Kirkman said. Mentors can help parolees find a church or other faith-based group to attend, find a job, get into college or finish a GED; and “assist in ensuring a positive, social connection rather than destructive relationships,” Kirkman said.

Russell Howell, who lives in Jerome and has mentored prisoners both in and out of prison for the past eight years, said he has met local governments to explain the program and plans to reach out to religious and community organizations soon. Kirkman said Free2Succeed plans to meet with the Twin Falls City Council at the end of January.

Lincoln County commissioners learned about the program in September, when they visited Idaho State Correctional Center, and attended a powwow with inmates. The inmates gave them a handmade prayer drum, signed on the back by the inmates in the ISCC Native Circle.

“We got to talk up close and personal to a lot of them,” Commissioner Rebecca Wood said.

State policymakers have been discussing ways to reduce recidivism for the past few years. A study in 2013 showed 40 percent of the state’s prison beds were occupied by returning probationers and parolees, leading the prison population to grow even as overall crime was dropping. The goals of the Justice Reinvestment Act passed in 2014 were to reduce both recidivism and the state’s prison population by strengthening supervision of people on probation or parole.

The county commissioners said people who commit crimes again and get arrested create a burden on local budgets.

“People are surprised to find out the amount of money counties pay when these people are arrested again,” Commissioner Cresley McConnell said.

“It’s very expensive to hold these people in jail,” Wood said. “It helps us all (if they don’t reoffend), because they’re going to come back into our community.”

People who are released from prison often have trouble finding work. Commissioner Roy Hubert said he has called companies himself to see if they will hire ex-inmates, but many don’t. And offenders, he said, often have drug and alcohol problems that contributed to their crimes. If they don’t have support or the tools to lead meaningful lives after they release, he said, they are more likely to reoffend.

Hubert knew a man years ago got a break after being released from prison. The man got a job, married, had a family and lived a successful life. He hopes the Magic Valley steps up to give more people a chance.

“We have to have somebody that has faith in these people,” he said.

___

Information from: The Times-News, https://www.magicvalley.com

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