Last week we began a series on helping prospective mentors determine if they are equipped to walk alongside current and former prisoners. While this isn't rocket science, there are some helpful questions that you should ask yourself if
1) you are considering mentoring someone involved in the criminal justice system, or
2) you have been mentoring someone for a while and have hit some roadblocks.
The questions below continue from where we left off last week.
CAN I SET BOUNDARIES?
Unfortunately, many folks who have ended up in prison have, over the course of their lives, learned to use others to promote their own ill health. There can be many reasons for this, but many prisoners have practiced the negative habit of manipulation for so long that they do it subconsciously. They do not intend the other person harm, but are unable to break the habit.
It is important for them to begin to unlearn this relationship-crushing behavior.
Set healthy boundaries from the outset of a mentoring relationship. The first time you meet with a prospective mentee, establish some ground rules to keep the relationship on a healthy course:
- "I will never lend you money, but I can help you figure out how to obtain necessary resources on your own."
(This rule is particularly important. Once money enters into a relationship, expectations immediately shift, and boundaries will need to be re-set. A relationship that revolves around money is hurtful to both parties. Additionally, in many states it is forbidden for a mentor to give money to a formerly incarcerated person.)
- "I will not take on tasks for you that you can do on your own, but I will help you figure out how to accomplish them."
- "I will not enter into a one-way relationship. I expect you to pursue our time together with the same commitment that I will give to it."
Remember, encouraging self-sufficiency is another way of saying, "I respect you and believe in you."
CAN I LISTEN WITHOUT TELLING PEOPLE WHAT TO DO?
Many people in prison have never had someone listen to their life story nor ask interested questions. Listening for long periods of time and demonstrating a genuine interest in the other person can go a long way.
A genuinely helpful mentor is one who dedicates herself to the art of listening, first and foremost. She then helps the person mirror back and develop their own healthy goals.
Didactic instruction or "preaching"is rarely, if ever, an effective way to help the other person make positive life change.
AM I WILLING TO ASK THE RIGHT (HARD) QUESTIONS?
Just because a mentor shouldn't resort to preaching, doesn't mean he shouldn't play a role in helping the mentee think about life in a new way. One of the best ways to do this is to ask good—and sometimes hard—questions.
Here are two of the best questions to ask someone who is serving any length of sentence:
1) Are you going to do time or use time?
2) Who do you want to be?
People who enter the system intent on just getting by until they are released ("doing time") aren't going to make any progress in changing the attitudes and behaviors that sent them to prison in the first place. In fact, passivity or numbering out to pass time is directly counterproductive to successfully reentering society.
Rather, those who set their minds on "using time" productively while locked up can actually set themselves on a path to becoming contributing members of their families and communities. That leads to the second essential question: "Who do you want to be?"
If your mentee was a poor father before he went to prison, he can use his prison time becoming the father his child(ren) never had. He can focus his energy on taking parenting classes and reading parenting books. He can re-develop a relationship with his child(ren).
If your mentee was a high school dropout, perhaps she would like to set her sights on becoming a lifelong learner. She can use prison time to earn her GED, develop a new skill, read good books, or learn a foreign language.
Click here for last week's installment in this series, and stay tuned for the third installment. In the meantime, here are some other helpful reading materials to help you consider whether pursuing a mentoring relationship with a former or current prisoner is for you.
*Although this resource is intended to assist those desiring to work with people in prison, the principles discussed here should apply to anyone considering how they can best come alongside anyone in a mentoring relationship.