Idaho Department of Correction’s mentoring program aims to aid prison parolees

Pocatello resident Kelsi Poole, right, talks with mentor Deborah Spencer recently at the District 6 Probation and Parole Office in Pocatello. Poole says having Spencer as a mentor is a great help as she works to recover from substance abuse disorder.  Doug Lindley/Idaho State Journal

Pocatello resident Kelsi Poole, right, talks with mentor Deborah Spencer recently at the District 6 Probation and Parole Office in Pocatello. Poole says having Spencer as a mentor is a great help as she works to recover from substance abuse disorder.
Doug Lindley/Idaho State Journal

By Scott Kraus, skraus@journalnet.com

POCATELLO — Pocatello resident Kelsi Poole says she struggled at first when she was released from a Boise-area prison in December after serving nine months for drug abuse.

“I didn’t really have a desire to follow the rules at the time or to get my life together,” Poole said.

But that was before the 24-year-old was introduced to the Idaho Department of Correction’s Free2Succeed community mentoring program three months ago in Pocatello.

“It’s a really good way to phrase it because you are free to succeed,” Poole said.

The program, which started in February 2016, provides volunteer mentors for people who are just released from prison, according to program manager Jeff Kirkman of the Idaho Department of Correction.

That’s a key period for people who struggle with drug abuse, he said. When they go from the structured environment of prison to the freedom of the outside world, they can all too easily fall back into their old habits.

So the Free2Succeed program connects them with mentors who are of the same gender to help the former inmates stay on a more positive path.

Mentors are generally people who have recovered from their own struggles with drug abuse or the criminal justice system. So they can readily relate to the people they mentor, who they meet in public places.

They need to apply, interview and attend yearly mentor training, as well as show they can be a positive influence. But there is no long, complicated background check, which makes it easier to find mentors, according to Kirkman.

And mentors help.

Poole, who got into drugs when she was 20 and hanging out with the wrong crowd, says recovery is a struggle. People generally need to go through treatment multiple times before they succeed. That’s because they have essentially trained their brains to crave drugs and need to retrain them back to a more productive path, she said.

“So that’s why I like the fact that I know my mentor’s similar,” Poole said. “I know that she understands.”

In fact, Poole stays in touch daily with her mentor, Deborah Spencer.

That’s one key reason why Poole has made significant progress, says Chris Anderson, her parole and probation officer.

“It allows them to have somebody … that they can lean on, like on a daily basis to have that contact, to have that positive reinforcement,” Anderson said.

And Poole says talking to Spencer definitely removes a lot of stress.

“It reduced my worry because I get to talk to someone that knows what I’m going through,” she said.

Poole says it’s important to have people in her life who can remind her that she’s not a lost cause. Because at first she didn’t realize that herself.

“That was a big thing for me,” she said.

For example, Spencer, her mentor, was a heroin user for a long period and spent three years in prison. But after her release she got a degree as a veterinary technician. She’s now been sober for over 30 years. And Spencer, 64, says she wants to give back to Poole and others to honor her parents and everyone else who helped her recover.

In fact, the program’s working well enough that Spencer is introducing it to inmates at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center before they get out. Then former inmates can connect with a mentor sooner to help them make the transition.

Anderson says mentors, who must be at least 25, help fill a void for drug abusers working to recover.

“That transition process is really a lonely process because usually the friends and people that they associated with have a lot of criminal background to them,” Anderson said. “And so as they transition from that to surrounding themselves with pro-social people, a lot of times they have to say goodbye to those past associations.”

Mentors can help them feel less lonely and provide positive role modeling as they adjust, he said.

Poole says having a mentor even makes another treatment program she attends called Crossroads, where she had previously not done well, all the more effective for her.

Poole, who was recently able to see her young son for the first time in two years, says it’s hard for those who’ve never faced addictions to completely understand what it’s like.

“A lot of the time as an addict I feel like I don’t relate to anyone other than an addict,” Poole said.

So that’s where Spencer comes in.

“I know that she understands; that she turned her life around,” Poole said. “And that gives you hope too that, like, you’ve seen someone go through it and they turned their life around. So you don’t feel like it’s hopeless.”

Poole says she’s also blessed because she has a good family that supports her through her struggles. Many people trying to recover don’t have that.

“A lot of people their family will either give up on them or they never had a good family to start with and all they’ve known is drugs,” Poole said.

And good support is vital. Poole said those recovering from addictions can have moments of weakness when they’re spur-of-the-moment inclined to use drugs again. So that’s an instance when they can reach out to their mentors for nonjudgmental support to help them get safely past that impulse and stay on the road to recovery.

“Support’s huge because it’s not easy. I mean you have to take it one day at a time,” Poole said. “Some days are harder than others. And when you have those, like, moments of weakness, now I can call a mentor.”

It’s at this critical moment and others like it when Poole says having a mentor is “life-changing.”