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2016 Summer Institute: Session 5 – Mentoring Incarcerated Youth

Posted in 2016, Voices Monday, 08 August 2016

2016 Summer Institute: Session 5 – Mentoring Incarcerated Youth

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Last week, the CFYJ interns wrapped up the 2016 Summer Institute series with one last discussion led by Penelope Spain, CEO of Open City Advocates, an organization that trains law students to be mentor-advocates for youth who have been sentenced in the juvenile system both during and after incarceration. With an air of genuine passion for her work, Penelope shed light on the most important components of mentorship.

 Mentorship, on a macro level, is an exchange of social capital. When we enter any sort of human relationship and forge social connections, we are sharing social capital. Mentorship is a relationship, but one that usually involves an unequal power dynamic, while still being mutually beneficial. Penelope noted that we are often not cognizant of sharable social capital derived from our social identities like race or socioeconomic status. Penelope urged us to tap into that social capital by exploring and becoming acutely aware of our unique social identities. Although it's okay to be an affluent white person mentoring a disadvantaged child of color, you have to recognize your identity, and acknowledge that there will almost certainly be some cultural disconnect. But doing this can create a richer mentorship experience for both parties. As part of the mentor training at Open City Advocates, the students are encouraged to lead from behind, especially when their social identities innately restrict them from leading from in front.


Crucial to any mentorship arrangement are clear expectations understood by both the mentor and the mentee. A prominent example is the timed nature of mentorships. The mentor must ensure that the mentee knows what that time limit is so that it doesn’t feel like abandonment when the mentor stops showing up. Penelope asserted that putting forth clear expectations can reduce emotional harm to the mentee both during the mentorship and when the mentorship formally ends. While the process of establishing closure is difficult for both parties, it is vital to a mentee’s emotional and mental health after the mentorship period is over. Despite the transient nature of the mentors at Open City Advocates, the organization takes care to extend the relationships in some form—whether by phone call, email, or another appropriate communication method—after the mentors move on.

Penelope and her colleagues at Open City Advocates record thorough longitudinal data on their mentees in order to gauge their successes and areas for improvement. Their data show incredible rates of re-enrolling in school (85%) and low rates of re-conviction (10%). Even within that re-convicted ten percent, the crimes committed deescalated in severity over time. Open City Advocates is doing great work with incarcerated children who desperately need well-trained and passionate mentors and legal advocates.