FOCUS: Offender Re-entry Mentoring Project

When offenders leave the jail, whether it is a complete release or a release to probation or a halfway house, they leave with exactly what they had when they were arrested. This means that if someone were arrested in June in a pair of shorts and sandals, and if they have no family or friends to supply them, they may leave in December in shorts and sandals, and a bus token. This is the situation of material needs. In terms of social needs, little case management is available, and so, if a person needs help with securing housing, employment, food, clothing, transportation, medication, they are on their own. It isn’t that these services are not available, but putting a network of help together is daunting, because these services are conducted through separate agencies, who do not particularly communicate with one another other. The process of trying to make it all work, while trying to find employment, make probation and mental health appointments, track down one’s children, stay off alcohol and drugs is depressing and often overwhelming. One out of every two offenders returns to the County jail.

The FOCUS program was started to bring some encouragement, support, friendliness and a reference point into these situations; to fill the gap and help establish and maintain this basic network, while working with the offender to improve and stabilize their situation. There are a few specific ministry programs who work with offenders, but there are no non-ministerial programs. The fact that FOCUS is an interfaith and beyond collaboration, just speaks to the fact that people are serving in this way because of the private inspiration of their spiritual path.

History

Restoring the Soul Community Partnerships is a nonprofit organization started by the executive directors of a number of service agencies and faith leaders in Boulder County. The organization’s primary goal is to encourage and support collaborations between congregations and agencies to provide the volunteers necessary for programs to thrive. An interfaith project initiated by Restoring the Soul, FOCUS is a prisoner reentry program which works both with the jail and with the 20th Judicial District Probation Department’s innovative programs, the Integrated Treatment Court and the Female Offenders Program.

In October 2004, the program was introduced to Sheriff Joe Pelle. His response was that it filled a crucial gap in the services for offenders. He signed a Memorandum of Understanding supporting the program. FOCUS has been active since April 2005.

The Program has expanded to include working with inmates on Work Release, ITC, Female Offenders Program, Inmates released to halfway houses in Boulder and Longmont, and probationers. FOCUS has also been invited to participate in the new DITC court for recidivist drinkers that Judge Roxanne Balin is currently organizing.

We have moved conservatively in enrolling mentors while working out systems difficulties with each of these programs. We envision enrolling 40-50 mentors as a future goal.

In 2005 FOCUS received a Colorado Compassion Initiative financial award to further its capacity to do this work and a Wells Fargo award to provide minimal needs for released prisoners. The program also won the prestigious NOVA award from the Community Foundation serving Boulder County in 2007. The program has been funded, at our first request, by the Boulder County Commissioners for 2008, as well as receiving a small Community Foundation grant.

Organization

FOCUS works under the direction of an Advisory Board, consisting of Joan Nagel, a retired DA office prosecutor and a representative of Congregation Bonai Shalom; Bill Karelis, Director, Shambhala Prison Community; Tania Leontov, Director, Restoring the Soul and the Buddhist Coalition for Bodhisattva (service) Activity; Robert Meals, retired sergeant from the Boulder Sheriffs’ Department; Elise Flesher, Longmont Police Department; Elizabeth Craig, MPA, trainer for the Justice System Assessment and Training Center for Change, and Josh Dunkle, Probation Officer.

There is a resource pool of other professionals who are available on an as needed basis, including Anne Tapp, Director of Safehouse; Sandy Hollngsworth, Boulder County Resource Specialist; Joseph Klein and Tom Fox, psychotherapists, and others.

A Review Board of professionals appropriate to the criminal justice field was initiated in January 2008 to review the mentor matches. This board meets every two months and host presentations by mentors of their work and issues. Members of this board are Ted Bradshaw, Boulder Criminal Justice Services; Stamie Minor, Director of the Phoenix Program in the B.C. jail; Liz Craig, trainer; Joe Klein, Tom Fox and Tanina Davanzo psychotherapists. The Director of FOCUS is Tania Leontov and the Boulder County Jail liaisons are Sgt.Sue Yankovich and Deputy Doree Newbery.

Original Memorandum of Understanding with Sheriff Pelle

The following points, including several approved revisions, reflect the main agreements in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Sheriff Pelle.

  1. We will liaise where appropriate, with existing agencies and personnel already involved, i.e. social workers, probation officers, etc.
  2. We will conduct a needs assessment
  3. We will identify community resources for the offender
  4. We will work with the offender to make contact with these resources
  5. We will make contact, where appropriate, with the offender’s family and surface needed resources
  6. We will act as a consistent point of reference for each offender
  7. We will not act as therapists or spiritual advisors, but we may refer offenders to diverse churches if they initiate a request.
  8. We will help the offender find housing and employment.
  9. The only categories of offenders which are excluded from working with FOCUS mentors are sexual predators and significantly violent persons, with exceptions to these categories at the discretion of the jail commander.
  10. Mentoring is through same gender matches.
  11. Offenders who have a substance abuse problem must be enrolled in a support program post release in order for FOCUS to work with them

Mentoring Process, Commitment and Support

In the FOCUS program mentors function as friends, offering support and encouragement to offenders as they transition out of jail into society. The program helps them find stable housing, employment, medical help, education opportunities, and other basic needs.

Surfacing resources is the job of the FOCUS program director and assistants. Mentors themselves may participate in this aspect of the program but not necessarily. Mentors commit for one year, 1-2 hours per week; ideally, several of these months are spent relating to the prisoner prior to release. Mentors often increase the amount of time spent with offenders if the extra time is useful. This is at the discretion of the mentor.

The FOCUS program works with male and female offenders in the Boulder County jail and since 2007 partners with the Probation Department after inmate release in two of its leading edge programs: the new Integrated Treatment Court and the Female Offenders Program.

Selection and Training of Mentors

Volunteers who wish to become mentors are interviewed by staff for salient experience, i.e. experience of working with numerous people in a teaching, counseling, therapy or advisory capacity. They must be over 25 years of age (occasional exceptions).

Mentors receive 12 hours of preliminary training prior to becoming active in a match. This includes introduction to the legal system, FOCUS guidelines and protocols, Motivational Interviewing, forms of offender manipulation, etc. There is also 1.5 hours of mandatory orientation at the jail. Further mandatory workshops on establishing boundaries, domestic abuse, substance abuse, anger management, etc. are conducted every month. Extensive support is available to mentors. FOCUS staff is readily available for discussion at any time. Staff will initiate contact with mentors fairly regularly just to check in. In January 2008 FOCUS established a Review Board of professionals in the criminal justice system and in psychotherapy to oversee the mentor matches. The Review Board meets every two months and, in addition, its members are available for issues that arise in the matches.

If you are interested in further information on this project and/or in volunteering as a mentor, send an email with your contact information and a brief description of your interest to info@restoringthesoul.org