Maine prisons have an opportunity to help improve inmates’ transition to life after incarceration and grow an educated workforce. How? By not only giving inmates educational opportunities when they’re behind bars but also by providing them with mentors who make sure they continue their education once they’re released.
Incarcerated adults are far more likely than the population as a whole to be functionally illiterate. About 70 percent of prisoners have some, but limited, reading and writing skills, meaning they may be able to fill out a bank deposit slip or pick out information in a newspaper, but they are unable to summarize lengthy texts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About half of prisoners do not have a high school diploma or GED.
So the state’s correctional facilities connect inmates to applicable in-house programs and to outside agencies upon their release. The key, then, becomes finding a way to motivate more inmates to continue to access available training once they leave jail. The corrections system can guide former prisoners to assistance, but if they’re not engaged and stop attending classes, what can be done?
It turns out that pairing ex-prisoners with peer mentors works. In jail, inmates have structure. But it’s all too easy for them to revert to former habits once they leave, especially since their lives are often complicated by substance abuse, family problems or mental health issues. More than half of former state prisoners are back in jail within three years of their release, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
So devising a way for peers — not connected to the criminal justice system — to regularly check on former prisoners after they leave jail is a promising idea. Something as simple as a weekly phone call or a shared meal gives a mentor the opportunity to offer encouragement. Someone is there to notice if ex-prisoners don’t attend employment-readiness training, classes to earn their GED or adult education courses.
Mentoring programs have worked elsewhere and are currently being considered by some Maine jails, including Penobscot County Jail, which received a U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance grant to look into the idea. The Department of Labor found that carefully structured mentoring programs, which allow for the development of trusting relationships with adult peers, can improve an ex-prisoner’s academic record and behavior. Ex-prisoners paired with mentors are more likely than those without mentors to find work, remained employed longer and recidivate less.
Clearly mentoring would not be for every ex-prisoner, and mentoring alone is not enough. For former prisoners to re-enter society successfully and get the training required to hold down a good job, they need housing, health care, employment and, often, counseling. And prisons cannot be expected to do everything. But the potential is there for mentoring to fill a gap in an former prisoner’s transition between incarceration and independence.