Informal Mentoring of Incoming Prisoners
Much of the peer teaching and service that occurs within OSP takes the form of informal mentoring. Men who are older and/or wiser offer guidance and advice to younger men or those who may not be younger, but are seeking to change their lives in a positive direction and would like support. Trevor and James have both benefited from being mentored by their peers, and they have both moved into mentoring and leadership roles. Trevor, who has been incarcerated since he was 14, has a fairly unique perspective on what it is to grow up and mature in prison. As one of the youngest people in Oregon to be convicted of murder in adult court, Trevor was sentenced to 30-years-to-life. Because he was only 14 at the time of the crime, however, he was too young under state law to be given a mandatory-minimum sentence. Trevor hopes to benefit from a rare “second look” which would allow him to return to the community under supervision if he is judged to have matured and grown into a responsible citizen during the first half of his sentence. Now at age 31, Trevor has taken on key leadership roles within the maximum-security prison for several years. With the possibility of release in his near future, he has put real thought into mentoring others and hoping they will step up to continue the positive momentum he has helped to create. Trevor writes:
In here, if we don’t mentor others, if we don’t share the knowledge of how to accomplish this or that, what we have worked towards is lost. I was fortunate to have that philosophy taught to me early on in my years at OSP. It was a combination of creating for yourself a place where it’s as enjoyable an environment to do time as possible and teaching others so that they maintain those improvements in your absence ... While students are not as eager or readily available as I’d like them to be, I’m happy to teach so long as the student is interested and willing to learn.
James, who was given a mandatory-minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life for the crime he committed at 16, has been both a partner in helping to lead the Lifers’ Unlimited Club over the last several years and also a willing student as he transitions into leadership of the RISE UP! (Reaching Inside to See Everyone’s Unlimited Potential) youth empowerment program. James explains what these leadership roles and the encouragement of other leaders has meant to him:
I’m one of the lucky ones in terms of being a prisoner because with these leadership positions I’m being afforded the opportunity to learn valuable skills that will be beneficial both here and in the outside community. I’m learning computer, communication, and time management skills. I’m learning how to write effective proposals, gather groups for activities that will involve heavy doses of teamwork and cooperation, and ways to work out conflicts without it devolving into confrontation. These leadership requirements are things that don’t necessarily come easily to me, I have to work really hard at it because by nature I feel more at ease in the background. But again, I want to grow and I understand that to do so means I have to step outside my comfort zone, and it becomes a little easier each time I’m encouraged by my peers.
While formal leadership opportunities are available to prisoners in good standing if they choose to pursue them, it is more common and certainly easier for prisoners to share their experiences and advice with their peers informally. James shares one such interaction:
About a year ago a fellow lifer brought a prisoner to me who had just arrived with a 25-to-life sentence. He had just completed the orientation portion of being a new arrival and was brought to me because, like him, I arrived here very young with a very long sentence. I recognized myself in this new prisoner from all those years ago; the fear he was obviously feeling, the anxiety that courses through the body for what feels like a hopeless situation, and more than anything else the fear of not knowing what to do in a new environment that’s usually anything but inviting.
I introduced myself to this new lifer, talked briefly about the 19 years I’ve done since arriving at the age of 17, and gave a lengthy description of the do’s and don’ts that determine a prisoner’s likelihood for institutional success. And then I waited. I watched him from a distance for a few months because I learned long ago that you can talk until you’re blue in the face about positive ways to do time, but ultimately it’s up to them to determine what type of prison time they want to do. I was encouraged one day when this same new prisoner came up to me on the yard and said I was one of the only men who talked to him about taking accountability for his actions and growing from them. He said he was still confused as to how that could be done after committing the crime he’s here for, but that he wanted to try. He could have gone several different routes upon entering the prison system: join a gang, start getting horrible tattoos that he’d surely regret, or run with the drug crowd and create a revolving door for himself in the disciplinary segregation unit. But he didn’t. Instead he enrolled in classes to earn his GED, joined a few positive, goal-oriented clubs, and got a really good first job. That’s success from the start compared to the alternatives.
Situations like that mean a lot to me because it shows that I’m in a position to make positive impacts on the lives of those around me. Whereas I was once the youngster who sought out advice from the old school convicts, I’m now the “old man” who imparts wisdom on some of the newbies. Yeah, and I’m only 36 years old. It’s kind of cool. Especially since I’ve been here for 19 years and I’m still about five years younger than the average age of the men imprisoned here.
Such informal and positive mentoring surely happens in prisons much more than the public will ever hear about. While the “pains of imprisonment” (Sykes, 1958) are undoubtedly real and the environment can be extremely harsh, at least some good can and does occur within the prison community through such mentoring processes. We hope the above examples helped to shed light on the fact that as challenging as the prison environment can be, during the time inside some men learn leadership, empathy, and how to truly care for their peers.