America's most wanted: mentors for youth offenders

LAKELAND – It’s a tired plot for people who work in prison ministry:

No positive role model, poor home environment, struggles with reading, peer pressure, a craving to belong -- followed by bad behavior and a stint in the lockup.

Almost everyone on the Florida Conference Jail and Prison Ministry Task Force, representing efforts that target facets of incarceration from inmate to parolee to ex-offender, had heard some variation of the story over and over. The only difference is the age at which it is being told; and that, the group decided, may make all the difference in the world. 

Task force members go over details of mentor training program
Members of the Florida Conference Jail and Prison Ministry Task Force discuss details of a mentor training program that will roll out in September in United Methodist churches. Photo by Susan Green.

United Methodists and the African Methodist Episcopal Church are launching “No More Throw Away Kids,” an effort to find faith friends for the nearly 2,400 juveniles incarcerated in residential facilities in the Florida Conference by the end of 2015. The goal is to break the cycles that often lead to lifetimes spent behind bars.

“Here we are as a church, and if we don’t step up … then I promise you that the drug dealers and the gangbangers will be more than happy to step up to them on the street and welcome them in,” said Cindy Lane, executive director of Jesus for Juveniles Ministries, based at Van Dyke Church in Lutz. She was one of about a dozen prison ministry workers from across the state to attend a task force meeting Thursday at the Florida United Methodist Center.

Training sessions for mentors will start Sunday, Sept. 21, at Branches UMC, Florida City. A second session is planned for Saturday, Sept. 27, at First UMC, Port St. John, and a third is planned for Sunday, Oct. 5, at First UMC, Brandon. For details, click here.

Bud Crowley, who works in Orange County with men trying to re-enter life outside prison, said most of the ex-offenders he meets say they had no positive male role model in their lives. Lane said many of the youth she works with don’t even know who their father is.

“Mentoring is huge,” Crowley said. “That’s what fills that void.”

Craig Swain, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice faith network coordinator, said swelling populations of incarcerated youth offenders are a challenge nationwide.

Florida has made great strides in juvenile justice reform, including promoting issuance of civil citations for youth who commit first-time misdemeanors as an alternative to arrest, he said. That option includes intervention services such as mentoring. However, the program is not available for all children in the system. 

No More Throw Away Kids

Youth in handcuffs seated with head in handsThe Florida Conference and 11th Episcopal District AME Church are trying to find mentors for nearly 2,400 children in the state juvenile justice system by the end of 2015. Will you help?

  • Branches UMC, Florida City
    12:30 to 5 p.m., Sept. 21
  • First UMC, Port St. John
    10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sept. 17
  • First UMC, Brandon
    12:30 to 5 p.m., Oct. 5

For information and registration, click here.

Prison ministry workers at the meeting agreed that helping youngsters overcome the influences that land them in trouble at an early age will help reduce the adult prison population in years to come.

Jackson said most of the youths targeted by the Florida Conference mentor program will spend about a year in their assigned facility, and the sooner they are paired with mentors, the better.

Mentors who go through the Florida Conference training will be matched with an incarcerated child and asked to make contact with that child at least four times a month, whether through a visit, phone call or letter, and remain in contact for at least three months after the juvenile is released. Task force members hope the relationship will last far longer, said Pam Garrison, who coordinates the task force for the Florida Conference. But the immediate post-incarceration period is crucial because statistics indicate nearly 60 percent of juvenile offenders will commit another crime within three months of their release.

Lane and Cheryl Jackson, who also works with Jesus for Juveniles, said many children never hear from friends or relatives while they are incarcerated. Sometimes parents don’t even come to pick them up when they are released.

In the West Central Florida area, where Jesus for Juveniles has already established a mentoring program, the biggest needs are at Lake Academy, a 48-bed facility for girls, and Tampa Residential, a 60-bed home for boys, Jackson said. Both facilities are located in Tampa, just west of Brandon.

Jackson said she has a waiting list of about 70.

“Some of these kids, every time I go in there, it’s do you have a mentor for me yet?”

Lane, who has been working in the juvenile justice system for years, said people have misconceptions of the young inmate population.

“People think they’re all delinquents,” she said. “Once I can get them there, they can realize they’re no different from their nieces or nephews or neighbor’s kid.”

Crowley said Methodists can help keep troubled kids out of the criminal justice system by stepping in as role models before the first offenses occur.

“All of our churches need to make mentoring available, particularly to [kids] without fathers.”

For information about “No More Throw Away Kids,” click here, or contact Garrison at (800) 282-8011, Ext. 148, or

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.

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The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

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Lakeland, FL 33815

(863) 688-5563 or toll free (800) 282-8011