Before retiring in 2013, Neal Lemery spent most of his judicial career presiding over courtrooms in Oregon’s northern coastal cities. Today, he dedicates his time to mentoring young inmates, a role he said more adults should assume.
“Fatherlessness is a huge, huge epidemic,” he said. “Eight-five percent of youth in prison are fatherless; 90 percent of homeless and runaways are fatherless; 85 percent of kids who have behavioral problems; 71 percent of high school dropouts; and suicides are 63 percent.
“Why are we not addressing this?” he asked.
A longtime resident of Tillamook, Lemery has visited Oregon Youth Authority’s Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility, a 50-bed prison that houses youth sex offenders, at least twice a week for the past six years.
“A lot of the kids I visit,” he said, “they haven’t had a family member come visit for three or four years.”
His mentorship began when a couple of his friends invited him to talk with a teenager serving time at his local youth prison. They told him the boy’s father was deceased, and when his mother visited, she showed up intoxicated. Lemery’s friends thought the boy could benefit from his guidance.
It wasn’t long before that young man and prison staff asked Lemery if he could talk to some of the other kids, too – kids who could use some support from the outside. Now he visits about five inmates regularly and stays in touch with those he’s mentored in the past who are now on parole.
“Almost all of them have lived in very abusive, dysfunctional families, and most of them have a horrible relationship with their father,” he said. “They need a dad around, so I’m kind of a dad.”
RELATED STORY: An excerpt from Lemery's ‘Travels with Joseph’
As of July, there were 601 youths housed in Oregon Youth Authority’s close-custody prisons, and 34 percent of them were there for sex offenses. Of the adult prison population, 25 percent are serving time for sex offenses, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections’ August reports.
Of the male inmates in Oregon’s youth prisons, 46 percent had a documented history of being abused or neglected, and 62 percent had parents with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, according to the agency’s 2014 Youth Biopsychosocial Summary.
Lemery said that for many, the proclivity to commit a sex offense was taught to them by their abuser, and with the counseling and education they receive in prison, they can and often do make a conscious decision to change their behavior. And for those without any support coming from outside the prison, a mentor can play an impactful role.
While there are also predatory sex offenders in Oregon’s youth prisons, who will reoffend, Lemery said that’s not the case with most of the kids he’s mentored.
“It’s not like they’re hard-wired to go out and rape and pillage,” he said. “Your judgment center in your brain doesn’t really mature until you’re 23 or 24 years old, and a lot of these kids, it happened when they were 13 or 14.”
He said there’s a dire need for more mentorship with at-risk and incarcerated youths. In 2014, he self-published a book, “Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains,” which he hopes will inspire others to become mentors.
The book contains short stories from his time spent with youths he’s mentored. For some readers, it might be an uncomfortable read. Many of the young men told him horrendous tales of childhood abuse, stories that he admits sparked his own desire to “take out and shoot” their predators. But he listens to them tell their stories and reassures them they had no control over the situation – a simple affirmation that some are hearing for the first time.
“Don’t expect people to thank you,” he writes. “You will see lives changed. You will see some amazing things and some astonishing, encouraging growth. You will recognize that you’ve had something to do with that.”
Lemery volunteers as a teacher’s aide in the master gardening program at the detention center. He also frequently visits the boys and young men he mentors to sip coffee and talk about schoolwork, books, sports and the news, but always to listen without judgment and offer encouragement, he said. Sometimes he brings along his guitar, playing folk, rock and jazz. He even paid for one young inmate’s guitar lessons. He and his wife, Karen Keltz, donate to the Christmas fund and bring in birthday cakes, and when his mentees are paroled, he’s there to pick them up at 6 a.m. and take them to breakfast, the beach and then on to Portland, Salem, Bend or wherever they have family or a halfway house waiting.
“I’ve had a couple guys just put up in homeless shelters and fleabag motels – awful places – but some places, like Salem and Eugene, have really good halfway houses,” he said.
Lemery stays in touch with the young men long after they’re released, inviting them to his home for the holidays, always welcoming them like family.
“They need that family support, that connection, knowing ‘someone cares about me,’” he said. “The most important thing I can do is send them a birthday card – no one else does, so that’s what we do.”
RELATED STORY: Families' perspectives on incarceration
Become a mentor
There are many opportunities to mentor youths in Oregon Youth Authority facilities.
“OYA welcomes volunteers as mentors, work readiness coaches, tutors and religious services assistants,” said Perrin Damon, the agency’s statewide volunteer manager.
She said volunteers must be 21 or older and are closely screened to ensure youth safety. The application process includes a written application; criminal history, Oregon Kids, reference and fingerprint checks; an interview; and orientation.
A criminal record does not necessarily rule out a candidate, she said. The time elapsed and nature of the crime are taken into consideration.
Dependability is critical, and most volunteers come in once a week, although there is not a minimum time obligation.
Closest to Portland is MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, about 30 minutes south in Woodburn, however there are also volunteer opportunities in Warrenton, Tillamook, Salem, Albany, Florence, Grants Pass, Burns and La Grande.
To volunteer at MacLaren, contact Volunteer Coordinator Craig Cutting at 503-981-9531, ext. 315, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out about volunteer opportunities statewide, contact Perrin Damon at 503-373-7269 or email@example.com.
For more information about volunteering at Oregon Youth Authority, call 503-373-7205 or visit www.oregon.gov/oya/Pages/volunteerservices.aspx.