Mentoring incarcerated youth continues vital work through pandemic

In Feburary 2020, HOPE Mentoring collaborated with the LaPorte Juvenile Correctional Facility to co-host a Dress Your Best fashion show. Young women were able to choose a professional suit to wear on the runway and to keep upon release from the facility. The fashion show highlighted employability skills, self-confidence, and peer support.

Racial injustice is a longstanding concern in the United States - and programs like HOPE Mentoring are working to change that. HOPE, which stands for Helping Offenders Prosper through Employment, provides weekly one-on-one mentoring to incarcerated youth that focuses on developing employment skills. They also focus on reaching youth that have faced racial prejudice and other challenges.

“At the school level, youth of color are discriminated against as noted by the disproportionate rates of suspensions, expulsions from school and the alarming reliance on incarceration when youth engage in illegal behavior,” said Theresa Ochoa, Associate Professor and Co-Director of HOPE.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded this negative effect on youth when they return home after incarceration, and HOPE is committed to developing a better understanding of this dual-burden impact on youth, and more importantly, finding ways to be a leader in changing these negative effects. Although in-person meetings had to pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work HOPE does has not. Through online meetings and even letter writing, HOPE mentors have continued to reach out to youth, a vital connection during a time when they have precious little contact with anyone outside the facilities.

We must create employment opportunities for youth if we want to give them a chance to learn to work. While our mentors have gained incredible insight into what these youth are experiencing, there is no better way for HOPE to learn and attend to every youth’s needs than by giving their voice a chance to be heard.

Theresa Ochoa

“Mentoring, now more than ever, is a critical support step for the youth, and HOPE has gotten very creative in how we deliver these supports,” said Niki Weller, Associate Professor of Sociology at IU Kokomo and Co-Director of HOPE.

HOPE recently received funding from IU’s Racial Justice Research Fund, money that Ochoa said will come full circle and allow HOPE to hire the same previously incarcerated youth the organization worked with.

“The funds from the IU Racial Justice Research Fund allowed us to hire recently incarcerated youth as consultants. This is a really unique opportunity to learn from youth about what they need when they return to their community,” Weller said.

Youth at LaPorte Juvenile Correctional Facility participated in a virtual workshop series for young women in October 2020 from HOPE. The series focused on honing employability skills, such as how to interview for a job, how to dress professionally, and how to craft a resume.

Hiring youth as consultants gives them an incredible opportunity to participate in this research as well as add some employment experience to their resume.  This unique opportunity is one that HOPE will pursue even after these funds run out.

“We must create employment opportunities for youth if we want to give them a chance to learn to work. While our mentors have gained incredible insight into what these youth are experiencing, there is no better way for HOPE to learn and attend to every youth’s needs than by giving their voice a chance to be heard,” Ochoa said.

“The incarcerated youth are exceptionally isolated during this pandemic without visits from their family members or mentors, which can lead to depression and anxiety for an already at-risk population,” she added. “The overall weakened economy and diminished job availability associated with the pandemic increases the vulnerability of incarcerated youth because they are returning to a community with fewer available jobs, they are at greater risk of contracting the virus when they use public transportation, and they are returning to a community with deficient youth-focused social services.”

Among those challenges, HOPE provides unconditional and sustained support to each youth. Any are accepted, regardless of what offense led to them in incarceration. In this time of physical isolation, each youth communicates with an undergraduate student who is sending them good wishes, sharing their own struggles and anxiety about the pandemic, and is committed to helping the youth towards their employment-related goals.

“Each youth receives a weekly note of encouragement from their mentor as part of our mentoring writing campaign to ensure the youth are engaged with their mentor and to keep their focus on planning for life after release. Each youth has one person in the community ready to help him or her make the adjustment post-incarceration,” Ochoa said. “Despite the current challenges we are all experiencing, the HOPE spirit and goal of helping each youth see the potential for a new possibility has remained the same and always will.”

The Racial Justice Research funds have also helped HOPE hire two doctoral students in criminal justice who have had experiences working as a HOPE mentor and have now joined the leadership team.

HOPE is a collaborative effort between scholars, the Indiana Department of Correction, and undergraduate students from different universities in Indiana, with Ochoa acknowledging the contributions made by the leadership team in particular. The Racial Justice Research funds have allowed HOPE to pivot from in-person mentoring to online mentoring with the collaboration of the facility personnel, mentors who have continued to connect from home, and the leadership team that includes Tyeisha Fordham (IUB), Chryssa Athans (Adler University), Caroline Crouch (IUPUI), Kimberly Ingold (Ball State), Alisa Gray (Ball State), Chelsee Gamblin (IUK), and Niki Weller, Associate Professor of Sociology (IUK).

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