TWIN FALLS — By the time Jasmine Marquez reached her early 20s, methamphetamine had become the most important thing in her life.
It eclipsed the love for her children – and their need for a mother.
“It’s all I wanted to do or spend money on,” Marquez said. “The ones that needed me the most, I wasn’t thinking about them.”
All she cared about was getting more of the drug.
Marquez, 24, of Twin Falls, was eventually convicted on drug charges. When she failed to stay clean during probation, she was sent to serve six months in the state’s Retained Jurisdiction Program in 2016.
“At that time, I didn’t want to change,” she said.
Being sent to prison was devastating. Her four children were split up, and she didn’t know if she would ever get her family back together.
But prior to her release from the prison program, she realized she needed help to rebuild her life. She asked for a community mentor through the Idaho Department of Correction’s Free2Succeed program and was assigned a program volunteer, Stephanie Ford, of Twin Falls.
The friendship and support Ford offered turned out to be just what Marquez needed to pull herself up.
Ninety-five percent of people incarcerated in Idaho prisons are released into the community at some point, said Jeff Kirkman, Idaho Department of Correction program director.
State lawmakers in 2014 passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which put money into rehabilitation programs instead of into building new prisons.
As part of the plan, the Idaho Department of Correction took a hard look at what was working and what wasn’t. With Idaho’s booming prison population, the state’s top prison official asked in early February for a roughly 7 percent budget increase.
To help alleviate the state’s recidivism rate, Kirkman was tasked with developing the Free2Succeed program, which uses community mentors to offer guidance and be role models for newly released parolees.
As of late January, there were 8,362 inmates in prisons statewide. In 2017, a total 5,629 inmates were released after either serving a full prison term through the Retained Jurisdiction program or as a parole violator.
The program, launched in early 2016, still has a small sample size, but early returns indicate it may be pivotal in reducing Idaho’s recidivism rate. The Free2Succeed program doesn’t shy away from using former inmates or people on probation or parole as mentors. Instead, the program sees an opportunity for former inmates to help parolees transition into the outside world.
If former inmates can’t find the necessary resources like a job and housing to assimilate into society, they are more likely to reoffend. That affects everyone in the community, not just the ones directly connected to the offender.
“It hits the taxpayers in the pocket,” Kirkman said. “We have to get them connected back into the community again.”
Since the Free2Succeed program began, demand has surpassed resources. About 300 people have applied to be mentors statewide, but more than 700 prisoners have asked for a mentor.
“We want every single one of those to have a mentor,” Kirkman said. “I know that’s a lofty goal.”
In the Magic Valley, there were 23 active mentors in early February, and more are needed.
The state recidivism rate for prisoners is 35 percent. Offenders who were imprisoned for parole violations average about 3 percentage points higher.
“It’s a revolving door,” Kirkman said.
But in 2017, the state recidivism rate for inmates matched with a mentor was about 4 percent.
“That rate really speaks to the potential of having a mentor in their life in a pro-social way,” Kirkman said.
Marquez said before the program, she had only one person in her life – her grandmother – who stood by her unconditionally. During her addiction, she says started pushing even her away.
“I can’t say that I ever had much positive support in my life,” Marquez said, “even before my addiction.”
Marquez and Ford first met at IDOC’s probation and parole office in Twin Falls after she was released in December 2016. Both parties were wary.
“I was really nervous,” Marquez said. “I’d never had someone there for me who didn’t judge me.”
As Ford’s first assignment, she too was nervous.
“I had insight into Jasmine pretty quickly, and I knew she would struggle to trust me,” Ford said.
Ford laid down boundaries, like where they would meet. She did not allow Marquez to come to her house at first.
She helped Marquez get medical cards for her children and housing, and helped her get through filling out her first-ever job application.
But a few months into the mentorship, Marquez started to slide back into her old ways. She stopped contacting Ford, and her addiction resurfaced. But Ford continued to reach out.
“She didn’t give up on me,” Marquez said.
Ford’s resiliency paid off.
As the two built a relationship, they began to trust one another and their mutual uneasiness dissolved.
Ford stopped mentoring through the program in November 2017 when she took on another role as regional coordinator of matching mentors and mentees for the Free2Succeed program through AmeriCorps Vista.
But she and Marquez have maintained their friendship.
Ford hired Marquez to work for her at her daycare, and the two women’s children often have playdates.
“I do a lot of things with my children now,” Marquez said, like going to the movies or the park or going out to eat. “I have the money to do those things.”
Her biggest challenge is staying sober. In addition to her probation requirements, Marquez has also sought additional counseling for addiction. She understands that when negative self-talk starts in her head, it’s a warning sign that requires reaching out for help.
She is expecting her fifth child in March. Five years from now she sees herself sober, owning her own home and maybe being someone else’s mentor.
“Stephanie makes me feel like I can do it,” Marquez said. “She makes me feel like I’m cared about.”
Unlike many prison mentorship programs, Free2Succeed does not prohibit mentors from having a criminal record. Prospective mentors must fill out a form, be approved and complete training to begin.
“A mentor can be anyone, even someone on supervision,” Kirkman said. “There are not a lot of restrictions. It’s more about what can you offer.”
Mentors who have already been through the post-prison transition can provide insight into the process, and establishes immediate credibility with the mentee.
“When people come out of prison and go back to Burley or Twin Falls, that’s really where the rubber hits the road,” Kirkman said.
If a soon-to-be-released prisoner expresses interest in the program, information is provided. The inmate then requests a mentor, and contact by phone begins before the prisoner is released.
Male prisoners are assigned to male mentors and female prisoners to female mentors, but some couples opt to mentor prisoners in tandem. Along the way, mentors work closely with probation and parole offices.
Senior Probation and Parole Officer David Burgara said the mentors are another resource for the office.
“They are an extra set of eyes if someone is messing up. They inform us so we can work to get them on the right path,” Burgara said.
Pairing mentors with inmates, especially ones who are at a higher risk of recidivism, takes some strain off of parole and probation officers.
“It gives us another tool in our belt,” said probation officer Jayone Fitzhugh said.
Marcy and Dallas Bruderer, operators of a jail ministry in Mini-Cassia, are no strangers to reaching out to incarcerated people.
“It’s nice to know that someone is in your court, and the whole world is not against you,” Dallas said.
When the pair had a chance to be involved with the state’s mentorship program, they felt no hesitation about joining.
“We’ve been waiting for something like this,” Marcy said. “They’re just people who made mistakes,” she said. “If we shun them, they’re never going to succeed.”
Mark Person, of Boise, thought he’d never walk out of the Idaho maximum security prison. His prison term for second-degree murder, handed down in 2005, was set to expire in 2051.
“I thought I’d do all of it. I thought I’d die there, and I’d wrapped my head around it,” Person said.
A disabled U.S. Navy veteran, Person’s life careened downward in a series of events around the turn of the century, including depression, back surgeries, a divorce and homelessness.
He began to ease his misery with drugs and eventually became immersed in the seedier side of the city. After a drug deal that went bad, he took a man’s life.
“I needed to pay for my crime,” he said. “I killed a man.”
But Idaho’s crowded prisons and Person’s good behavior behind bars meant that when his case went before the parole commission in 2015, they swung the doors open for him to leave in July 2016. In all, he spent 15 years in prison.
He was not prepared for how terrifying life outside of prison would be.
The men he befriended inside had become his family, and the prison’s rigid schedule had made all of his decisions for nearly a decade and a half.
There was no easing back into society; it happened in an instant. When he went to prison, his daughter was only 3 years old. She was now a young lady.
“I had to meet my daughter because I never really knew her,” he said. “I also didn’t think people would be able to forgive me, or that I’d be able to forgive myself.”
He worried about seeing old acquaintances at the grocery store who would remember his haunted past.
“I felt like I had a scarlet letter on my chest, and everyone who would see me would know what I’d done,” he said.
The first time he walked into a Walmart after leaving prison, he grabbed his sister’s shoulder to keep his knees from buckling beneath him.
“I was dizzy. There were so many lights and colors. It was a shock to the senses,” Person said.
Person, recognizing that he needed assistance, requested a mentor through the newly-minted Free2Succeed program.
“My situation was different from most inmates,” Person said. As a disabled veteran, he had his basic needs met, like clothing, housing and food.
Most people are not so lucky. Inmates get help with 30 days of housing at a halfway house, but the time starts ticking the second they walk out of the prison gate.
Person recognized how lucky he was, both to have some of his basic needs met and for the mentorship he received. He knew immediately that he wanted to pay it forward, and signed up to be mentor in the same program.
He developed his own style, which he calls Day One. He picks up the newly-free citizen at the prison gates and gets him his first cup of coffee. He then follows a route around town, helping the mentee get clothing vouchers, hygiene items and a bus pass.
He also takes the mentee to the all-important first probation and parole office visit. He then takes them to Health and Welfare for a food card and settles them into to the halfway house.
“Rent is due in 30 days, and when you don’t have a job that can be scary,” Person said.
Even after Day One is complete, he stays in contact as the mentee adjusts to society and the demands of a fast-paced world.
“That first week is so crucial,” he said.
Prisoners often spend countless hours dreaming about things they’ll do when they’re free, but it doesn’t take long for the harshness of reality to settle.
Person guides the mentee toward good decisions, a skill that may be rusty or sometimes non-existent, and helps them focus on practical matters that will make their lives easier. One of his top priorities is finding a job close to the mentee’s apartment – an important detail, he said, when the mentee doesn’t have a car.
So far, Person has mentored seven prisoners.
“A couple were failures and reoffended,” he said. “When they went back, it was heartbreaking. But five of them are doing phenomenally well.”
Some of them, he said, want to become mentors too.
Person agrees that the program is successful because it doesn’t shun former inmates as mentors.
“I’m passionate about this. I want to help these guys coming out and give them a foundation,” Person said.
The next mentors
“I’d gone up and down with the choices in my life,” Alex Adams, of Burley, said. “Drug court changed my life and turned me around.”
Drug court made Adams reexamine how he wants to live his life. He now reaches out with friendship and encouragement to others going through the process.
While going through drug court, Adams offered a kind hand to Juan Labra, of Heyburn, who was also going through the program on drug charges.
They held each other up and became friends.
“I’ve always had a giving heart,” Labra said. “And after I went through drug court, I really wanted to start giving back.”
Their probation officer, Fitzhugh, began directing other people from drug court to Labra and Adams. Sometimes they extend an invitation to go to the gym, other times the offer is as simple as a cup of coffee.
“People have to create additional hobbies. They have to have something different to fill up their time,” Adams said.
Success depends on it. Boredom often means relapse. Sometimes curbing those temptations is just a matter of holding the mentee accountable before the courts do.
“Recovery takes on a life of its own for each person,” he said.
Through the informal mentorships, both Labra and Adams are ready to officially sign up to be mentors through the Free2Succeed program.
“Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to ask for help,” Labra said. “It was a total life shift.”