Offenders Get Second Chance with Program

The Register-Herald

By Wendy Holdren

By volunteering just a few hours each month, mentors can change the lives of the men and women asking for help in the Second Chance Mentoring Program.

The program, created by KISRA (Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action), offers assistance to nonviolent, non-sexual offenders who are integrating back into the community.

“A lot of people coming out of prison have trouble getting jobs, getting housing. They face a lot of barriers, and we are just trying to help them reintegrate back into society,” said program manager William Lipscomb.

“Part of the Second Chance Mentoring Program is to provide them with somebody who will spend a few hours with them a month, just to make them accountable and to pass on knowledge. They don’t have to be rich, they don’t have to be geniuses. They just have to be concerned and passionate about helping somebody.”

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KISRA is a faith-motivated initiative started by Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in Dunbar. Even though spreading the good news of the gospel is the church’s primary purpose, the pastor there believed that message is hard to be effective if people’s basic needs are not being met.

The organization started in 1993 with the Harambee Learning Center, which provides area children with after-school and summer programs that offer help with homework, mentoring, recreational activities and more.

After seeing many of the children with risk factors, such as academic failure, extreme economic deprivation and exposure to alcohol and drugs, the group decided to implement additional community services to strengthen families.

Employment and Asset Development divisions were soon created, along with programs within them.

KISRA worked with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families recipients to offer workforce readiness training and job placement assistance. They also reached out to low- to moderate-income residents, offering financial counseling, as many of them had poor credit.

Many residents needed child care, so KISRA opened the Harambee Child Development Center, which also created more jobs in an economically deprived community.

Leaders at KISRA saw many families with single mothers, so they began another program to help men become better fathers — Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Initiative. And because the majority of that program’s participants had criminal backgrounds, they established the Second Chance Mentoring Program.

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The program is offered in Kanawha, Cabell, Mercer, Berkeley and Raleigh counties, and program leaders say there is no shortage of participants.

“Finding mentors is the problem,” program specialist Linda Lane said.

She said many people may be skeptical about helping someone who’s just coming out of the system, but she emphasizes these offenders, ages 18 to 39, have not been charged with any violent or sexual-based crimes.

And the benefits of mentoring can be huge.

Lipscomb said recidivism rates in West Virginia are around 40 percent, meaning that when a person comes out of jail or prison, they are 40 percent likely to commit another crime and wind up back in the system within a year.

But studies have shown that a single mentoring session can deter a participant from committing another crime by two to three months.

“If you commit to consistent times, about four times a month, it really starts working.”

When participants join the program, they are matched up with a mentor based on compatibility. That’s where mentor coordinator Charlene Diggs comes into play.

Diggs asks both the mentor and the mentee to fill out questionnaires about their interests and their backgrounds, then pairs them accordingly.

“If they don’t have anyone outside the mentor, they’ll go back to doing the exact thing they were doing and be right back in prison,” Diggs said. “The mentor may say, ‘Hey, I like to shoot ball, do you wanna come too?’ It will help keep them stimulated, keep them active and they’ll share a common interest.”

Lane, who previously worked in corrections, said many people have burned their bridges and often have no one to turn to.

“We just let them go, and they had nothing, no one and they came back into the system.”

But when program participants are paired with a mentor, they establish a goal sheet and ways to help the participant achieve those goals. Goals may include establishing a career, going back to school, purchasing a house, or maybe reconnecting with their families.

“Mentors will guide them on their journey,” Lipscomb said. “They’ll challenge them each week to accomplish some of those steps until they reach that goal.”

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West Virginia’s prison population has tripled since 1990, according to KISRA, and the increase is almost entirely related to the state’s increasing drug problem.

Lipscomb said incarceration costs are over $26,000 per inmate, per year.

The goal for the Second Chance Mentoring Program is to bring the state’s recidivism rates below 25 percent.

“This seems like a no-brainer,” said Beckley Mayor Bill O’Brien. “This is something that needs to happen, and I certainly want to encourage people to become mentors. Everybody deserves a second chance in life.”

Beckley Police Chief Lonnie Christian, too, fully supports the program.

“If they have a mentor who can guide them in right direction, they can help them make better choices,” Christian said. “It’s not just police and courts who are responsible for people integrating back into community — It’s part of community’s responsibility, too.”

Diggs said ideal mentors are good listeners. “Just having someone to talk to and listen to their problems can help.”

Empathy is an important characteristic for mentors, as well, Lane added.

Mentors will submit an application to join the program and will be subject to a background check; however, just because someone has a rough past doesn’t mean they’ll be disqualified.

“It all depends on when and what the charge was. If someone had a drug charge and they’ve been clean four or five years, they might have a positive influence on someone coming out of jail,” Lane said.

“That’s what we’re mainly looking for — someone who’s going to give them positive influence and some guidance. They may say, ‘I’ve been there, done that, and it may not be a good idea for you.’”

Once accepted to the program, mentors will go through an orientation process to learn more, as well as attend monthly training sessions.

Lipscomb said mentors are only expected to commit two to four hours each month, and mentoring times are flexible.

“It’s whatever works for you and your mentee,” he said. “The most important thing is being dedicated.”

The program does ask for a one-year commitment from each mentor.

All the program leaders said they see tremendous benefits for the participants, the communities and even the mentors.

The participants will be encouraged to build better lives, communities will be welcoming back transformed individuals and mentors will know they’ve made a huge impact on someone else’s life.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride,” Lipscomb said. “When you see a change in a person that helps them, their family, their community, and they’re buying houses and they have good jobs, it’s priceless.”

Diggs noted that all the mentees are voluntary participants, and they have been offered no incentives to join.

Lipscomb said, “It takes courage for somebody to ask for help, and these mentees are asking for help.”

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For more information about the program or to find out how to become a mentor, call Linda Lane at 304-252-5657 or e-mail [email protected].

To learn more about KISRA’s programs, visit