By, Jessica Snow
This fall marked P2P’s first cohort graduation inside a correctional facility since the advent of COVID in 2020. Cohort 26 took place in Missouri Dept. of Corrections, in a new state P2P had not worked with on the inside before. The entire P2P team and community felt energized by finally having the opportunity to share our program and the hope and support it instills with those who were still incarcerated.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of hurdles when trying to bring programming into a correctional institution. However, P2P is unafraid of a challenge and was excited to begin building the pathway to host Prison-to-Professional cohorts inside the Missouri DOC. It is through the careful scaffolding of our incredible leadership team (Dr. Stanley Andrisse-Founder, Machli Joseph- Dir of Policy, Advocacy, and Outreach, Mancy Thompson-Program Director, and Basia Skudrzyk- Director of Workforce Equity) that the P2P team, mentors, and scholar community were able to greet a small group of gentlemen in a small classroom on a hot day in July.
In this post, you will hear interviews with our leadership and team members working in St. Louis and our excellent scholars who graduated in September from P2P Cohort 26. First, we’ll listen to Basia Skudrzyk, Workforce Equity Director who lives locally in St. Louis.
Jess: Basia, can you tell me a little about how our partnership was built with MO DOC even to allow our programming inside facilities?
Basia: The first step in building this partnership happened when Anne Precythe, Director of Missouri Corrections, heard P2P Founder, Dr. Stanley Andrisse, speak at the Correctional Leaders Association gathering. An intelligent woman, Director Precythe was inspired by Dr. Andrisse’s message, thinking, ‘If this guy can be an inspiration to the men in this room, why not bring him in as someone who has been in an incarcerated person’s shoes and can serve as a hope for those transitioning back into their community.’ He had figured it out, so Director Precythe thought, ‘Let’s introduce those who have been successful and achieved remarkable accomplishments in the face of adversity.’ Because of Dr. Andrisse’s speech, Director Precythe had the wardens of all 19 MO prisons read his book, which opened the door to the physical partnership.
Jess: How did the P2P program eventually make its way into the Transitional Center of St. Louis (TCSTL), specifically?
Basia: P2P agreed to do a trial run of our program, allowing others time to buy in and watch to see if we practiced what we preach. This led to an introduction with Superintendent Chris Sarchett and an invitation to do a site visit at TCSTL.
Jess: What were your expectations at this meeting?
Basia: We had no idea what to expect. For all, we knew at that time, Supt. Sarchet could have been difficult to work with. We had low expectations and assumed they would tell us how they ran their programs. We could hot been more wrong. Supt. Sarchett and his team could not have been easier to work with. There is a reason TCSTL is called a transition center and not a jail or prison. They focus on updating programming and revitalizing education and reentry by bringing in programs like ours. He is committed to the center’s work, recidivism is low, and this partnership and engagement looked like a win-win for everyone.
Jess: Did that same level of engagement continue throughout the cohort?
Basia: Yes, I thought we would be looked at differently, but even walking through TCSTL we c, we could see that this place was different. I kept asking, “Are we in a foreign land?” because our memory of incarceration was much different from what we saw around us at TCSTL. Their support and involvement were continuous, and their team thoughtfully approached everything. They wanted weekly meetings to develop goals and help meet logistical needs to make the program successful for the guys. We were bringing in their whole team and collaborating created a trust many programs didn’t initially have. When we asked for additional computer time for our scholars, the TCSTL team made that happen. Even Supt. Sarchett went out of his way to be present for graduation, handing out certificates that weekend.
Basia and MO Program Coordinator Eric Harris served as local facilitators and coordinators in St. Louis.
Jess: How did it feel going back into corrections after being released for several years?
Eric: It was my first time to be back in a DOC adult facility in years, but I was used to that environment. It was easier back in the facility, knowing I didn’t have to abide by the same rules I did when I was incarcerated. Being a credible messenger, and being with P2P, allowed me to have uncharted access without any hiccups. I was excited to be there for people to ask questions and help them find answers the moment, with o shooting kites and waiting weeks for answers.
Jess: How did it feel watching the scholars’ first impressions of P2P during the first few weeks of the cohort?
Eric: I enjoyed bringing them into a team that was for them. Watching them have anxiety and doubts at first was interesting because I knew these people wanted to help. I already knew that P2P was the real deal, and watching their worries change to the opposite over the first few weeks was fun. I was proud that our word was accurate when everyone became more open to trusting us.
Jess: Can you tell us an example in the cohort when a scholar had to overcome fears and distrust to embrace the program?
Eric: I would say “E” was the most overcoming scholar. He had the most challenging time with computer literacy and the hardest time deciding whom he could trust. He was the hardest to work with because he could sometimes be non-verbal and afraid to believe in the program because of his status. A pivotal moment occurred in a one-on-one meeting with Mancy (Program Director) and Rosie (Mentor Coordinator), where he acknowledged a hearing disability, his fear of computer literacy, and his fear of being targeted because of his crime. Mancy and Rosie ensured that “E” felt heard and strategized ways we could support him rather than watch him shut down. By the end, he was the happiest of all the scholars. He came primed and ready, well-dressed, open, and more communicative. He had a smile in his eyes and was receptive, no longer standoffish.
Jess: What were some other barriers to some of the other guys in the program?
Eric: It’s easy as an incarcerated man to question, like, ‘nobody loves me,’‘ I have no chance,’ ‘Nobody will hire me,’ ‘There’s nowhere for me to go.’ We had to teach them how to cut out negative behavior and help them realize that on the other side is freedom. People here and out there want to help and have resources available for you.
Jess: How did the men in cohort 26 offer support to one another?
Eric: It was Charles & Tim who were the biggest helpers. Tim had the expertise; he was laid back and uniform and provided a steadiness in someone they could trust. He helped answer their questions and offered help. Charles was so energized about the program. He wanted to help in any way he could. Once he figured out some of the Google classroom issues, he showed the other guys how to do it. He even brought in a speaker so that “E” could hear the sessions and was able to participate better.
Tim McDermott and Charles Bowles, cohort 26 graduates, had their insights to share.
Jess: What were some of your reactions during your time in the cohort?
Tim: Some of the information I had heard before, but the energy in the room was exciting. Dr. Andrisse’s story was inspiring, and the new IT information was unfamiliar but exciting. I thought Donte’s class was the most helpful because it was all further information for me. It was reassuring to know that people were there to help when it’s natural not to trust people while incarcerated. I enjoyed building friendships with guys in the class, and we would chat in the hallways and after class.
Charles: The P2P team made the most significant difference for me. Rosie’s kindness in her heart for everybody gets me deep. Dr. Stan shared the same prisons, and now he is a doctor. That is amazing. It gave me hope and life to what I considered doing in my future. My mentor James Tompkins is incredible. He has helped me through some tough times when expectations fell through. He gave me recovery support, sent lyrics, and sent encouragement through email. He inspired me to stay in the P2P program and be patient as everything falls into place.
Jess: As the cohort ended, how did P2P and other partners help fellow 26 graduates as they began transitioning back to the outside?
Eric: We’ve been able to hook up several scholars with employment opportunities. We’ve provided info and assistance in helping them find vehicles.
Basia: Housing was a real need. At the St. Patrick Center, a housing grant was available for returning citizens for up to a year. Linking everyone together really allows for helpful opportunities to happen. We helped to provide a safe space to trust and ask questions about employers or application guidance. As those affected by the justice system, we know that we have to work 3x as hard to prove ourselves, to explain ourselves, and to demonstrate that we belong in spaces where incarcerated people haven’t been. We provide a support network where we can lean on each other. We get to build people up and let them know they can do it, and we are lucky to be a part of that process in somebody’s journey.
Jess: To Charles and Tim, how have things been for you since graduation?
Tim: I am happy to be home with my family again. I have already been on campus at SLU to meet with professors and leaders in the department. I will start taking classes for a Master of Arts in Religious Education in the spring. Next year, I’ll pursue a Master of Arts in Theology. I’ve already had two people offer to help pay my tuition! I am visiting churches and slowly reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in years. I’m enjoying good coffee and running regularly again, too.
Charles: I am feeling phenomenal. I just got a new job doing masonry. It will be good pay, and I’m excited to prove myself. I’m a “watch this” type of guy. I’m excited to mentor for P2P, and I want to be the same type of mentor that James was to me: above and beyond, present and available. Open lines all the time. I’m a natural helper- I get that from my mom, and I can’t wait to start. I’m still waiting for my housing situation to get sorted out, but I’m hopeful.
P2P is proud of its graduated scholars, but this inside cohort felt extra special. Dr. Andrisse flew to St. Louis for graduation and enjoyed getting to shake hands with each of our graduates in person. More of the team met graduated scholars and toured the TCSTL facility while in St. Louis for the STEM-ops convening and annual P2P Retreat. It was a joyous reunion with bear hugs, big smiles, and catching up. P2P welcomes all cohort 26 graduates wholeheartedly into the P2P family, and we can’t wait to see where you all go next.