A Burlington nonprofit is partnering with the Vermont Department of Corrections to help incarcerated women make the transition from prison.
The Vermont Women’s Mentoring Program is a project of Mercy Connections that matches trained volunteers with women who are in prison or under community supervision as they prepare to return to society.
“I think it helps them because they understand that a mentor is a women who sees their value, that doesn’t judge them for all the stigmatizing judgments that society offers to women in reentry,” Joanne Nelson, director of Justice and Mentoring Programs at Mercy Connections, said.
Mentors undergo five weeks of training to “learn about the trauma that most incarcerated women and justice-involved women experience in their lives,” Nelson said.
The program asks for matched pairs to stay matched for a year after release from prison.
“Those are critical months in reentry,” Nelson said. “We ask our matched pairs to meet at least once a month and all of that was altered a bit by COVID.”
About 1,400 women are released from the Women’s Correctional Facility in South Burlington every year. According to the Vermont Department of Corrections, more than half return to jail in their first year after release. Nelson said the women are often stigmatized as they try to find employment.
“They also need to find a safe place to live, and those two together you have to earn enough money to find a place where you can pay a lease or contribute to rent,” Nelson said.
Lynn Kennedy has been a mentor for more than 15 years. “I just ended two years with a woman and the goal was for her to get an apartment and get herself in the community, get herself clean, and she did all that — she met her goal,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said one particular mentee made her realize the importance of the program.
“She said, ‘You are the only person who has continued to have contact with me because my family has given up on me and they are tired of me making these decisions and ending up back in prison,'” Kennedy said.
Women interested in becoming a mentor don’t need prior knowledge of the criminal justice system or mentoring experience to participate, Nelson said.