By Maryalice Gill
CONCORD – Janice Gould, 65, had been fulfilling a prison sentence in women’s correctional facilities since she was 34. She started at a state correctional facility in Florida, then moved to the State Prison for Women in Goffstown, then to Shea Farm Halfway House for women, in Concord.
The prospect of finishing up her sentence in April, and re-entering the world outside of prison, was a daunting one.
That is until Gould learned about Good Bridges.
“I thought it was a dream come true,” Gould said, at a Good Bridges barbecue at Shea Farm on Tuesday. “I’ve been locked up so long all my family is dead. I have a son but he doesn’t know how to help with women’s work. I was skeptical at first, but boy, am I glad I did it.”
Good Bridges is a mentoring program that helps Nashua, Manchester and Concord women with criminal backgrounds find work and transition back into their community.
A program through Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, Good Bridges came to fruition through a two-year $300,000 Second Chance Act grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. A similar Second Chance-funded program is already in place for women re-entering communities in Merrimack County.
The Good Bridges program launched in October 2010, and by December, it started matching women nearing the end of their prison sentences with volunteers to work one-on-one on career awareness and work readiness skills.
“We have 23 matches to date, with many more in the pipes,” Edda Cantor, regional director for Goodwill for New Hampshire, said.
Cantor said there are still probably 10 mentors – and as many women – waiting to be matched up as of Tuesday.
This type of mentoring program for female inmates has been a dream of Cantor’s since she started working in New Hampshire women’s corrections in 1988.
Cantor was the first warden at the Goffstown state prison, the first women’s prison in New Hampshire, before serving as the assistant commissioner of the Department of Corrections and then taking on the acting commissioner role in 1999. She left the Department of Corrections in 2001.
Even after leaving, the women she served stayed with her, Cantor said.
“Women only comprise 7 percent of the prison population, so where are 93 percent of provisions going to go?” Cantor said.
“Because of my history trying to figure out programs for women, when Second Chance put out grants specifically about mentoring – and Goodwill already ran mentoring programs for kids – it was a good fit for us,” Cantor said.
To participate in Good Bridges, matches agree to spend at least four hours a month together for a year-long commitment. Volunteer mentors need only fill out an application, undergo a federally regulated criminal background check, and participate in a brief Goodwill training session to receive a match-up.
From the inmates’ side of things, that’s as long as the woman is from Concord, Manchester or Nashua; not sentenced to life without parole; and has served at least her minimum prison sentence. After inmates apply to be part of Good Bridges, they undergo risk assessment for repeated violations and are eventually matched depending on who is available to mentor.
Once Good Bridges makes a match, the mentor meets with the match up to six months before the woman is scheduled to be paroled and released – during visiting hours if she is at the state prison in Goffstown or by scheduling time to visit at Shea Farm.
For some pairings, like the one between Monique Lopez, 30, and mentor Kim Hernandez, 21, four hours a month is not nearly enough time. They spend at least two hours a week together as a rule.
“She’s a little superwoman. I call her my little mentor,” Lopez, a mother of two, said of Hernandez, a Hesser College criminal justice student. “She comes twice a week and visits with me. I really value the time we spend together. We walk and talk, and it’s always something I look forward to.”
Lopez and Hernandez were matched in April, as Lopez looks forward to finishing up a year-long sentence.
“She’s helping me get information on school so I can start college when I leave here, so that I don’t fall back into the same kind of friends that got me here,” Lopez said. “My major concern was not having the contacts in the community that I needed so I can progress and not fall back into the same lifestyle … I’m more confident than I was, knowing I have at least one ally out there.”
Hernandez said the mentor benefits just as much in the matching.
“We’ll probably be inseparable,” Hernandez said. “I want to be part of everything she does because she’s just an awesome person.”
The mentor relationship is meant to be just that – a friendship to support the women in a way that a clinician, therapist or parole officer cannot.
“They’re not a treatment provider, they’re not a parole officer, they’re someone trying to help them, somebody who’s in their corner and tells them they can make it,” Cantor said.
That’s how 65-year-old Gould described her mentor.
“You don’t stand alone,” Gould said. “My son gives that to me, too, but you need a female. How can I talk about personal problems with my son? I can’t. She’s so patient. She’s a blessing.”
With the help of Gould’s mentor – everything from helping her purchase sandals, to giving her rides to doctor’s appointments – Gould said the transition out of Shea’s Farm was smooth.
“It’s a big help, it helped me back on my feet and got me motivated to enjoy life again,” Gould said. “I thank God every day for my mentor.”