Troubleshooting Training: How Three Programs Prepare Volunteers to Mentor People Leaving Prison and Jail

July 27, 2017

Staff at the CSG Justice Center talked to three reentry programs with promising training practices about their experiences developing and delivering training to volunteer mentors.

Training mentors to support the reentry population is not an exact science. For many reentry programs that offer mentoring services, the training of mentors is an ever-evolving process that can unfold in challenging and unexpected ways.

“To train [people] who can successfully mentor is probably the hardest thing that we do,” said Kathryn Arnold, executive director of Pathfinders, a Second Chance Act (SCA) mentoring grantee based in Fort Worth, Texas. “It takes an incredible amount of work.”

It also takes a certain amount of trial and error. Pathfinders has been in the business of reentry mentoring for 20 years, and during that time the organization has ushered in a number of changes to its mentor training curriculum as program staff have learned more about what works for mentoring adults. Similarly, SCA mentoring grantees Sponsors of Eugene, Oregon, and Spectrum Health Systems Inc. of Worcester, Massachusetts, have explored various methods of training their volunteer mentors and tailored their instruction to meet the needs of both mentors and mentees.

Covering the Basics and Providing Ongoing Support

Certain topics—such as safety and personal boundaries—are commonplace in training curricula for mentors who serve people leaving prison and jail. But approaches to addressing that content may vary widely from program to program.

Staff at Sponsors conduct a full-day, in-person training for new mentors, which affords them the time to use role-playing exercises. According to Jen Jackson, director of the mentorship program at Sponsors, it is beneficial to offer “trainings that are interactive…[where mentors can] step out of themselves and actually practice the stuff that they’re learning.”

Since most of the mentors who volunteer with Sponsors do not have a personal connection to the criminal justice system, often their first exposure to people who are impacted by the system comes on training day when Sponsors staff gather mentors in the same room as their mentees for the morning session of the training. Although this is a unique practice for reentry programs that offer mentoring, for Jackson, having mentors and mentees in the same room to introduce program policies, role definitions, and communication expectations was a straightforward choice.

“Right out of the gate, [mentees] got a handbook and they went through a … two-hour training to make sure that we’re all on the same page,” Jackson said. The combined mentor-mentee training “also gives us an opportunity for potential natural matches to happen—like two people just connect together in that training.”

Staff at Sponsors and Pathfinders both stressed the importance of providing ongoing training and support for mentors beyond the initial orientation.

“You can’t fit everything that’s going to happen in a mentoring relationship into … a six-hour training,” said Toby Jones, mentoring director at Pathfinders, which holds a six-hour orientation session for all new volunteer mentors. “Having [a] mentoring coordinator available to provide additional, ongoing, sometimes one-on-one information to a mentor is really important.”

Pathfinders staff also organize monthly mentor mixers where volunteers can expand their knowledge base on topics that are relevant to reentry mentoring. Mentors, who make requests about what they want to cover, largely drive the content of these ongoing trainings. And even though attendance is not mandatory at the mixers, according to Arnold, they have consistently had a good turnout.

“We dig pretty deep in those monthly mentor mixers, and that’s something we’ve been doing for … six or seven years,” Arnold said. “That’s had a tremendous impact on the comfort level of our mentors and on their confidence in being able to handle a situation with a mentee.”

Sponsors holds similar monthly support groups for both mentors and mentees, and provides mentors with resources for further education about issues that affect the reentry population.

“There should be no surprises,” Jackson said. “Everyone should know what’s expected and the program should have a very solid plan for avoiding harm and keeping [both mentors and mentees] safe.”

Being Flexible

When staff at Spectrum in Massachusetts first began to offer pre- and post-release mentoring services, about 50 people volunteered to serve as mentors, but less than a dozen of them actually completed the required training. For Spectrum’s State Director of Correctional Services Earl Warren and Program Director Nicole Etcheverry, it was clear that they needed to rethink their approach.

Spectrum initially asked that volunteers attend four three-hour, in-person training sessions. After seeing such low completion numbers, they decided to put their mentor training almost entirely online using their own staff training platform.

“This made an extraordinary difference, in that within the first month of having this online we had over 50 volunteers who had completed all of their training and were ready to go out into the community and into the correctional facilities to start their volunteer experience,” Warren said.

This change in training delivery was especially crucial for Spectrum because of its partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Correction, which requires that volunteers go through training before serving as mentors in correctional facilities. Now, after volunteer mentors complete their online training, they have a two-hour face-to-face session with Spectrum staff to wrap up the training process.

“Training is so important to the success of the program and the safety of the volunteers,” Warren said. “They are giving their time freely and we have to be … considerate of that time and be … flexible with how we conduct our training.”

Staff at Sponsors also acknowledge the importance of being adaptable with training content.

“We’re always adding things,” Jackson said. “For example, marijuana is legal now in Oregon. That’s something we need to talk about now… That wasn’t a policy we had to worry about a couple years ago.”

Turning to Mentors as a Resource

Even after decades of experience training mentors, Pathfinders staff are constantly looking for ways to improve their training. They revamped their curriculum just this year as a result of expert feedback from people in their own pool of mentors. Two volunteers, who have professional experience in training adults and writing curricula, offered to apply that knowledge to Pathfinders’ mentor training.

“They went through our training [curriculum] and … basically what they were telling us was ‘your content’s really good but we think we can probably help you present it in a more interactive way [and] in a way that helps people retain more of what you’re introducing to them,’” Arnold said.

This was a great boon to the program, according to Arnold, because Pathfinders would not otherwise have had the funds to pay for an extensive overhaul of their training. The volunteers have worked for months on developing the curriculum and Arnold looks forward to implementing the updated training material, which she says now has “another layer of incredible depth and richness.”

For Kristie Mamac, assistant director of the mentorship program at Sponsors, “asking for feedback from mentors is really important… They’re really your best resource for anything that might need to be changed or enhanced in your training.”

As part of its daylong mentor training, Sponsors has a seasoned mentor give his advice on what new volunteers should know about mentoring people who have been in prison or jail. The mentor himself proposed the idea of participating in the training because he thought that the perspective of an experienced mentor would have been useful in his own orientation as a first-time mentor.

“Good mentor training becomes a foundation for a healthy and positive mentoring relationship,” Arnold said. “Mentors … want to leave the mentor training and feel equipped to connect with their mentee. All the other stuff—the background about our agency, and the policies and procedures—all of that is incredibly important, but when they come to that six-hour training, they really first and foremost want to know ‘what is the very best way for me to work with a mentee?’”

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