Prison mentorship program working in Kansas

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HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — For the past couple of months, Troy Ottinger’s employer has implemented reduced hours, so his paychecks have been significantly smaller. With bills starting to pile up, Ottinger is quite anxious to get back to full-time work on his overnight shift.

Admittedly struggling, the 43-year-old’s reaction to the situation, however, is decidedly different than it would have been just two years ago.

“I drive down the street and I see things it would be easy to steal,” said Ottinger, a three-time convicted felon. “But I’m not going to fall back to that. There’ve been lots of bumps in the road, but I don’t let it keep me down.”

Sitting across from Ottinger as he spoke was a grinning Hutch Moshier, who Ottinger credits for his continued success on the street almost 19 months after his release from the Hutchinson Correctional Facility.

The two met through a new mentorship program developed in 2012 by the Kansas Department of Corrections. While the designed year-long mentorship has expired, they keep in touch regularly, with Moshier continuing to offer advice and support.

Now, however, it’s offered as a friend.

The two men were the first mentor-inmate match in Reno County under the program, which today has some 150 inmates and 110 mentors matched through the Hutchinson Correctional Facility, said local mentor coordinator Rick Husselman.

Statewide, nearly 3,350 matches have been made, said Jeremy Barclay, communications director for the Kansas Department of Corrections, of which about 700 have been successfully completed since the program began.

He hasn’t been in trouble since he was released in July 2012, Ottinger said, and he’s no longer on probation, although he still has five months left on parole.

That contrasts with a history that includes a prison term in Washington state before he moved to Kansas and then multiple prison stints here since 2008 for drugs, forgery, identity theft and escape.

“I’ve been addicted to drugs for 35 years,” Ottinger said. “I started at a very young age. My mom and dad didn’t use them, but my brother did. I was smoking weed at age 7, crack (cocaine) by 13, and by 17 I was doing meth. That was the original case that sent me to prison.”

It also cost him many of his front teeth, a consequence of extended meth use. He has pulled several himself, Ottinger said, because he can’t afford a dentist.

Addiction continues to be one of his hardest demons to fight, Ottinger admitted, although he remains drug-free thanks to treatment and his new friends.

It also seems remarkable to Ottinger that he has held the same job for 16 months, where he continues to learn and develop new skills.

“I love my job,” Ottinger said. “My wife says it’s where I really thrive, where I function. I went from knowing nothing to running CNC machines.”

His job supervisor and trainer, he noted, is “half my age.”

Among Ottinger’s firsts are being a United Way donor and saving money in a 401(k). He also now pays child support, as well as his monthly household bills.

Besides Moshier, Ottinger credits his success to an anonymous donor from Pratt who helped him cover the deposit and first month’s rent on a home he’s renting from Interfaith Housing Services. That was a big hurdle to being released. He also thanked Aaron Dover, client director at IHS, and the pastor at his church.

“Before, when I got sent back, I didn’t have no one there, someone willing to walk me through difficulties and give me advice,” Ottinger said. “If I needed to get somewhere, I’d call Hutch and he’d take me. We’ve had our disagreements, but nothing major. Hutch is just so positive.”

“I didn’t give him a handout,” Moshier chimed in. “It was a hand up.”

The relationship hasn’t been all one-sided, Moshier said, with Ottinger offering “a renewed feeling of friendship I haven’t had since high school.”

“I had two buddies and the three of us were inseparable,” Moshier said. “I’ve not had that since, but I do now. It’s a friendship, not a dependence. Troy’s learned to be his own man without stomping on people.”

One of their favorite activities together is hitting yard sales, which they’ve been doing since Ottinger’s first week out of prison. That’s where Moshier picked up a gift for his friend that now hangs on his wall – a painting of two pack mules pulling a wagon up a hill.

“It’s an uphill battle, but keep struggling and we’ll pull through,” Ottinger said of the message he regularly receives.

The men were a good match, said program coordinator Husselman.

“Troy bounded in and out of prison because of drug use and bad relationships,” Husselman said. “I think he’d have been back by now, or in jail or treatment. His life would have headed in a different direction short of Hutch. He’s a very good mentor. I’d like to have 25 more of him.”

Having worked with inmates inside the walls before joining the mentoring program, Moshier noted, “One thing you learn early is you’re going to get okie-dokied.”

“You really can’t defend yourself 100 percent against it, but you can be on your toes,” he advised. “You’ve got to learn not to be angry about it because someone is going to try to trick you and lie to you. But Troy has never done that. He’s never okie-dokied me.”

The DOC is making a real effort, Moshier said, to find the right inmates to put in the program and to match them with the right mentors, who begin to meet at least six months before the inmate’s release.

“The last thing they want is for matches to fall apart,” Moshier said. “And this isn’t short-term, but long-term.”

The recidivism rate of those in the program – the number who have returned to prison since release – is less than 10 percent, Husselman said.

While they traditionally look at a three-year period after release for their recidivism numbers, and the program isn’t yet three years old, Barclay said preliminary data indicates a recidivism rate of just 8.6 percent statewide for those in the program, versus a rate of 17.8 percent for the population of all others released during the program’s first 24 months.

“I’m still not half the man I want to be, but I’m more than I was 18 months ago,” Ottinger said. “I’ve changed my criminal behavior and I’m not afraid to ask for guidance.”

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Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com

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