Could this one simple idea stop the revolving door to prison?
At age 35, Jermaine Myers has spent most of his adult life incarcerated.
The cycle started when he was 16, charged with armed robbery as an adult. He got out at age 21 with the idea of getting a commercial driver's license. Instead, he said, "I went back to drugs and guns within two months." He was locked up again at 22. Then at 24. He got paroled at age 28, but soon was locked up on a violation. At 32, he caught another case: drug possession, two more years.
Each time he left prison, Myers said, he had good intentions. "I wouldn't say I didn't have the desire to change. It was just, I didn't know how or have the right people to advise me."
But when he was released last October from state prison in Chester, it was different. This time, he was part of a mentoring program, including classes, group meetings, and one-on-one sessions with a mentor that began well before he left prison and continue to this day, months after his release.
Mentoring is an old-school solution to a historically vexing puzzle: how to manage prison reentry in a state where 60 percent of people are locked up again within three years of being released.
It's not flashy or even, at this point, particularly novel. But early results are promising. The program, run by the Pennsylvania Prison Society through a contract with the state Department of Corrections (DOC), has worked with more than 200 people leaving Chester and Graterford Prisons since launching as a pilot in July 2015. Only two have been arrested again, according to Steve Gotzler, the program's coordinator.
It is a small component of an extensive investment -- $10.4 million this fiscal year -- in reentry services by the DOC, which in 2013 began contracting with providers to address challenges like employment, housing assistance, drug and alcohol treatment and family reunification. Since July 1, 2016, the department has committed just $80,774 of that for mentoring services, according to Teresa Pinard, a deputy director in the DOC's Department of Community Corrections.
Now, Gotzler is working to take the Prison Society's mentoring program statewide. That way, it could support the scores of juvenile lifers that will be released thanks to a pair of recent Supreme Court decisions: one determining that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, and another requiring states like Pennsylvania, home to more juvenile lifers than any other, to apply the ruling retroactively.
For the nearly 500 men and about 10 women juvenile lifers who have been locked away for decades, it will be their first time living as adults in the world.
"People are most likely to reoffend within the first three months post-release," said Michael Thompson, director of the Council for State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit. "It's a jolt to move from a hyper-controlled environment, especially if you've been there for a long time, to the chaos of everyday life."
He said a relationship with a trusted mentor can smooth that transition.
But, he added, "it should be a component of a comprehensive strategy. Mentoring, when delivered in the right way, can open up a person to services or help them stay engaged. But mentoring in itself isn't enough to change risky behaviors."
A mentor, a father figure
Studies of the federal Ready4Work program found participants who had mentors were twice as likely to find jobs and 39 percent less likely to recidivate than those who did not.
That doesn't surprise Myers, who struggled to find work in between his prison stays. He often was limited to short-term, seasonal jobs. One time, he was hired as a hotel cleaner, but it only lasted a week and a half.
"After the background check came back, they let me go," he said.
This time, he had his mentor, Gotzler, to coach him. Gotzler reminded him he had work experience to put on a resumé, even if it was mostly prison jobs. He also had references -- that is, the corrections officers who were his supervisors. Gotzler urged him to be up front about his criminal record in interviews, instead of waiting for employers to find out later.
And a couple months ago, Gotzler drove Myers, who does not have a car, to an interview for a warehouse job at UPS.
"I was honest about wanting to be a better member of society and wanting a shot to be productive. I wanted to be an asset rather than a liability to my friends and family and community," Myers said. He was hired.
For Myers, Gotzler is adviser, friend and father figure. Myers' own father, a longtime crack addict, died in 2011.
It helps that Gotzler is also an ex-offender. "He understands the obstacles and hurdles," Myers said. "He understands the determination and motivation needed."
Gotzler did seven years in prison for running a marijuana distribution ring. Like many other inmates, he acted as a jailhouse lawyer, helping others work on appeals. Unlike many other inmates, he decided to apply to law school from prison – a process that began with friends paying to fly an LSAT proctor in to administer the test. He got "some very funny rejection letters." But Rutgers accepted him.
"I went straight to law school three weeks after prison, making law school much more enjoyable for me than for the other students," he said.
He worked in public-interest practices for years. Now, he's busy recruiting mentors -- ideally, people who've overcome their own challenges, legal or otherwise.
In the Prison Society program, he and other mentors aim to meet with mentees for several months before their release, then again after they return home.
They focus on helping the ex-offenders through the major challenges people face coming out of prison: finding jobs, securing housing and building social relationships.
That last one is crucial, Gotzler said. He often talks about the importance of associating with "normal" people.
"If you have a long-term criminal past, most of the people you knew before are in a world you don't want to be in anymore," he said. "I try to coach these guys to be as busy as they can and meet as many normal people as possible."
Having them 'do well'
The DOC contracts with 18 mentoring programs around the state. Anyone leaving prison can request or be referred to these programs, but Pinard said the hope is juvenile lifers, in particular, can benefit.
One challenge is logistical: Though the majority of juvenile lifers will return home to Philadelphia, they are scattered at institutions across the state. The Prison Society already has 400 "official" visitors -- trained prisoners' rights advocates who by state law may access any Pennsylvania prison for a range of reasons. Some of them might become mentors. But, Gotzler said, many more mentors will be needed.
Kathleen Brown, a University of Pennsylvania professor emerita, developed a 12-part mentor-training module in collaboration with her students and a group of juvenile lifers.
It acts as instructions on coaching someone through the basics of living in America in 2017, she said: "Here's how you sign up for health insurance. Here's what to think about in terms of banking. All the way to helping them with building relationships."
"I want [the juvenile lifers] to do well," she added. "I mean, more than recidivism. I also don't want to find out that they're living in a homeless shelter or something. By 'do well,' I mean not just not commit another crime, but actually have a good life."
For these men, that will mean overcoming a complex set of challenges. Thurmond Berry, a lifer whose sentence was commuted last year after 39 years in prison, said he had worked with Gotzler but it didn't help much. Even so, he thinks a mentor -- if trained right -- could be the key to a smooth return to society. Berry said people coming out of prison after long stays have many misconceptions about how the world works. "The big part is for people to understand there are no free rides. Things are just not going to be the way you expect them to be. It's a mental process."
But for Myers, who was not a lifer but who has spent most of his adult life as an inmate, the combination of mentoring with other services seems to be helping.
In the past, he was always released "to the street," with no support. This time, he was sent to a halfway house. He gets group therapy there, and has time to seek housing. He's hoping the day isn't too far away when he can be a mentor, too.
For the first time, he said, "I'm feeling confident."
But, he admitted, "sometimes I get a little nervous. When everything is going well, you wait for the other boot to drop."
For information on becoming a mentor, email Sgotzler@prisonsociety.org or call 215-564-6005.