Skip to main content

ASU students mentor incarcerated teenage girls

August 15, 2007
It’s an unfortunate, reoccurring theme among many of the teenage girls incarcerated at Black Canyon School in North Phoenix. They speak of backgrounds marred by drugs, fights, broken families – and perhaps most telling of all – the lack of anyone in their lives who really cares.

That scenario is changing for teenage girls who have been paired with student mentors through the Youth in Transition Service Learning Program internship, part of Arizona State University’s Academic Community Engagement Services at University College. Youth in Transition mentors meet with incarcerated girls twice weekly to participate in activities, work on plans for re-entering society and simply talk about what’s going on in their lives. ASU student mentors visit Black Canyon School, a year-round school operated by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, to meet with young women who are mostly between the ages of 16 and 18.

Twenty-two year old Kortney Mosher is a mentor for Patricia, 17. Their relationship has undergone a series of upheavals including building a sense of trust that was eroded when Patricia ran away from a group home. When Patricia came back to the correctional facility, Mosher told her she felt used.

“Patricia started to cry,” Mosher says.

Even though it was tough, that confrontation helped solidify their relationship.

“I didn’t know if she really cared. I test people out. I wanted to know if she was here for me or for the program,” Patricia says. “It’s hard coming back here and facing these people who believe in me so much.”

Patricia says that having someone like Mosher in her life makes her feel like “she’s a person.”

Mosher is a case manager for ValueOptions who became involved in the program at ASU before she graduated with a degree in psychology.

“I feel like she’s a little sister,” Mosher says. “I care for her deeply.”

And Patricia has learned that Mosher is one adult she can trust.

“We have seen young women who have previously been rightfully leery of adults learn to trust and build relationships with their mentors and the program partners,” says Katie Barclay Penkoff, Youth in Transition program coordinator. Barclay Penkoff leads mentoring sessions at Black Canyon School with Jennifer Morgan, Youth in Transition program assistant and Barbara Strachan, Just Us program manager for Girl Scouts, Arizona Cactus-Pine Council.

Youth in Transition was developed in 2004 as an outgrowth of another program for incarcerated women called Adelante Jovencitas or “Moving Young Women Forward” that was spearheaded by the Girl Scouts, Arizona Cactus-Pine Council; Catholic Charities, DIGNITY Services/Diversion Programs; and the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. The program’s sponsor is the Arizona Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Youth in Transition’s goal is to help young women successfully re-enter the community, thereby reducing recidivism rates.

Mentors work with the young women they are paired with while they are incarcerated and after their release. Although some young women have gone back to their former lives, others have made real progress by earning their General Equivalency Diploma (GED), securing employment and staying sober.

“We have seen the impact of the Youth in Transition Program at many levels,” Barclay Penkoff says.

One measure of success is the praise the program has earned from the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections (ADJC).

“Katie and her team do a phenomenal job educating the ASU mentors. Before they are ever matched with youth, the mentors have learned so much about ADJC, its population and the reasons behind the many rules that guide the program,” says Kathy Twitchell, Black Canyon School volunteer services coordinator.

Teens who are incarcerated can anticipate enjoyable visits when their mentors arrive.

“We love the program,” says Keryl Work, Black Canyon School superintendent. “The girls at Black Canyon School look forward to the mentor program, especially the girls without families.”

Mentors feel like they can relate to many of their mentees experiences, but some are practically impossible to fathom, such as Patricia losing her father a few years ago after he committed suicide. She’s currently awaiting placement in a group home where she can be away from her family.

“They’re all about drugs,” Patricia says. “That’s not what I want.”

Mentors work with incarcerated teens on issues such as creating a re-entry plan, writing a resume and finding a place to live before they are released. Mentors keep in touch with the girls after their release, helping them deal with issues and problems that come up in life. Mentors also undergo background screening including fingerprinting and drug screening.

Brenna Gonzales is a 23-year-old ASU psychology major who is paired with Frankie, 16. Gonzales didn’t know what to expect when she met Frankie for the first time. “I was really nervous. I was so scared,” she says.

After getting to know each other, they formed a close friendship.

“I confide in her a lot,” Frankie says. “I love my mentor.”

Besides writing back and forth in a journal, the two make plans for Frankie to earn her GED and work on things like writing a resume.“We work on my future,” Frankie says.

It’s a future that she sees free of drugs, a habit that she picked up when she was 10. Nor does she see gangs in her life anymore since most of her former friends are either locked up, dead or on the streets.

“I don’t want to be like that no more,” Frankie says.

Gonzales calls upon her own experience as a teen when she works with Frankie.

“I know what it’s like to be a teenager,” Gonzales says. “Whenever she needs help, I’m here to help her.”

And she predicts that their relationship will last past the required year-long commitment.

“I think she’ll be doing really good in five years,” Gonzales says. “This experience has changed me a lot.”

Learning how much one person can do as a mentor has been an added benefit of the program. “Students have told us that the experience has made them grow both personally and professionally,” Barclay Penkoff says. “Several of the mentors have secured employment with youth-serving agencies.”