Program gives HOPE to juveniles in prison

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Matthew Hamilton, a Secondary Social Studies Education student, works with a juvenile as part of the HOPE program.

A new suit can help someone land a job – and give them confidence moving forward in life. For the HOPE program, a new suit is just one of the many benefits participants get.

The Helping Offenders Prosper through Employment (HOPE) Mentoring program was adopted by the Indiana Department of Correction in 2015, though the HOPE research team has existed since 2011. HOPE was developed by Theresa Ochoa, Associate Professor in Special Education, when she learned that many students with disabilities were incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. As she began looking into the school-to-prison pipeline and factors that contribute to incarceration and recidivism, the idea for the HOPE Mentoring program was born.

Mentors within the program provide weekly 1-1 support to incarcerated youth that focuses on developing employment skills. Each mentor comes up with individualized activities for their assigned mentee, so activities can vary depending on the needs of the students, with most activities circling back to employment. Mentors help mentees fill out job applications and write resumes and cover letters. They also create mock interviews and help with goal setting and developing tangible steps to reach those goals. Sometimes the focus is on soft skills like teamwork, respect or strong communication by journaling, conversation or reading. For other sessions, mentors and mentees enjoy a relaxed activity plan doing a Sudoku puzzle or playing a game as they build their relationship.

“Research shows that one of the greatest protective factors against recidivism is employment, which makes sense,” Ochoa explained. “Everyone needs money and without a job, some youth are forced to turn to illegal options to get money. But finding employment requires resources which many students simply don’t have. Sometimes those resources are tangible, like an appropriate outfit to wear for a job interview. Other times, the resources are less concrete but no less important, such as having a support system to lean on during the job search process, or having the confidence to apply for a job.”

 

HOPE aims to connect incarcerated teens to employment opportunities and prepare them for the work field so that when they are released from prison, they have a greater chance of success in the community. We know this is better for the individual, better for our communities and better for our bottom line as a country.

Theresa Ochoa

HOPE provides materials to help mentors plan for their weekly sessions, but they’re also able to use their own creativity to develop the most effective sessions for their mentee. Once mentees are released from corrections, mentors continue to help them actively seek employment or pursue an education. One of the main events HOPE will have this month is Dress Your Best, a workshop where ten juveniles walk down the runway in their best professional attire, modeling their outfits to their peers, teachers, counselors and HOPE team. Before a juvenile leaves the facility, he or she is fitted for a suit which they take with them when released – with some even wearing their suits out of the correctional facility to start their new lives.

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Tyeisha Fordham, a Criminal Justice and Psychology student and HOPE Juvenile Mentoring Statewide Re-entry Liaison, studies with a student

“It can be difficult for the students, who wear uniforms in corrections and sometimes have never owned a suit before, to imagine themselves in a professional role. Likewise, it helps HOPE and facility staff view students in a new light,” Ochoa pointed out.

According to Ochoa, the United States spends nearly $5.7 billion on incarcerating juveniles every year, amounting to nearly $88,000 per student annually. In Indiana, there are over 400 students residing in correctional confinement across three correctional facilities. Recidivism rates in Indiana are around 33% compared to 55% nationally.

“HOPE aims to connect incarcerated teens to employment opportunities and prepare them for the work field so that when they are released from prison, they have a greater chance of success in the community,” Ochoa said. “We know this is better for the individual, better for our communities and better for our bottom line as a country.”

Program coordinators collaborate with directors from the Indiana Department of Correction and with staff from each of the correctional facilities, with the IDOC currently funding three positions: one reentry liaison and two mentoring co-directors. Community donations of clothing, food and gas money are also key pieces of HOPE’s success over the last few years.

To date, 50 undergraduates from different programs around IU and other universities in Indiana have served as mentors to incarcerated youth. The program benefits both the IU students and the incarcerated juveniles, with many students changing career plans to become social workers or be otherwise involved in the correctional facilities, creating ripples that will influence the outcomes of teens in Indiana for years to come.

And the program has continued to grow: HOPE is currently piloting the HOPE for Home program, which provides psychoeducation and coaching to the families of youth in correctional confinement.