Youth prison mentor program helps young offenders get back on track

Posted at 10:30 PM, Nov 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-18 00:04:56-05

Young offenders who enter the criminal justice system often don’t have parents involved in their lives or other positive role models.

A program at the Nebraska Youth Correctional Facility is helping keep young offenders on the straight and narrow once they're released.

The prison for youth and young adults in Omaha prides itself on using alternative ways to keep young offenders out of trouble when they're released from prison.

A mentor program that pairs volunteers with inmates is not only keeping the majority of participants from re-offending, it's saving lives.

Orlando Neal, 21, returns to where he was sentenced about three years ago for trying to steal a car.

He’s not going back as an inmate.

Neal is returning to thank his friend, role model and mentor, Morris Williford, who Neal credits with saving his life.

"Thank you Mr. Williford,” Neal said. You changed my life for the better. If it wasn't for you, I’d probably be dead, or even worse, be all alone."

What does it take to save someone from themselves?

An hour of games and conversation every Tuesday.

"Having that person visit you every day, every week,” Neal said. It's life changing."

Having someone from outside the razor wire befriend an inmate is part of a larger effort to reduce the likeliness they'll re-offend after being released. 

Of 28 former inmates, who have had mentors through the program, three have returned to jail or prison, a recidivism rate of 11 percent.

Nebraska’s overall recidivism rate is more than 32 percent.

While the program is mending the lives of offenders like Neal, who didn't grow up with positive role models, it's also healing to the mentors.

"You can't find a word for it because it's more than just joyful,” Williford said. “It’s... I don't know there's really not a word for it.... it's just something that... you just feel like, 'wow.'"

Williford, a former inmate himself, says helping inmates change their lives around is part of his purpose in life.

"I did the best I could and lives were actually changed," Williford said.

There are many kids without positive role models in Omaha and volunteer mentors are greatly needed, he said.

"To know that you can make a change in somebody's life instead of complaining about society or complaining about what's going on, go out there and make a change," he said.

It’s a mistake to assume criminal offenders can't change their lives around, Williford said.

"You can't really judge a person unless you've walked in their shoes,” Williford said. “You don't really know what a person is thinking, why he's in that situation, why this occurred unless you've gone through some of the hard things that people go through."

Inmate Marco Ramos told his mentor, for the first time, what he means to him.

"I don't have my father in my life,” Ramos said. “I kind of see you as a father figure. I don't really say how much I thank you, but, I really appreciate you. Something to take me away from the prison setting, sit here and talk.

For Ramos and mentor John Simon, it's a moment to reflect on the value of their unique relationship.

"It's encouraging to come and be a part of somebody's life and help make a difference in somebody's life, it's really gratifying and encouraging," Simon said.

The first three months after an inmate is released are critical for mentors to maintain contact with their mentees, prison staff said, because offenders often don't have a social safety net on the outside.