Rob McKinney, the Reentry Campus Program Mentor Coordinator, supports those coming home by connecting them with recent RCP graduates and formerly incarcerated mentors. His program has touched many lives, but most recently, he wrapped up with a group of 26 mentors who sometimes worked with more than one returning citizen to create a culture of support.
With Rob's guidance, take a hands-on approach by independently connecting with their mentees weekly for a year. They also gather socially through dinners, mental health support groups, sports events, and workshops coordinated by the Reentry Campus Program.
He believes being available whenever needed is the best way to support his mentors and their mentees: "It's an everyday, all-day kind of job. If someone calls you and needs you, it's your job to be there with some kind of help."
Connecting through the heart-to-heart
It can be a challenge to connect with some folks who are impacted by the criminal justice system when they're out living their lives. Especially the youth. So, it's important to Rob that mentors keep close tabs on their mentees. The RCP Mentor Coordinator's model for building communities of support requires trust, confidentiality, and leaning a little on his own history.
"In this field, you need them heart-to-heart talks," Rob said. "That's part of being a mentor because you're trying to save the kid you're talking to. You're trying to, you know, give him your life so he doesn't make them same choices."
As Rob will tell you, he’s a very different person than he was when he was sentenced. Now he uses that different person to connect to those he’s mentoring in the community. He doesn’t shy away from using what he describes as the "old Rob's" past status as a "hood celebrity" to start conversations.
"I am the rap video or the hood movie they watch; I am all that. And so, if you get to shake the hand of the hood celebrity, then they're like 'wow.'" He said he'd draw them in with a few minutes of "past Rob" before painting a picture of the Rob he is today and his current mission: being a force for positive change in the community by saving one person at a time.
"In my head, I'm trying to be Superman," he said, "even though I know I'm not Superman, but I'm trying to save the world. I'm trying to save the people from becoming the old me. If I did it and I lived through it, and now here I am, then, I did it for all of us. I did it, so you don't have to go through it."
Rob was sent to prison months away from his 21st birthday and sentenced to life plus ten years. His lawyer, he said, told him he'd have to be inside for 20 years before being considered for parole. As a young man facing decades behind bars, he had trouble conceptualizing being locked up for as long as he was alive.
Rob said his heart was hardened when he went in: "At first, for a few years, you still have that anger in you." But gradually, his perspective changed, especially when he thought about his two boys: "No one wants that for the children you now can't raise."
He did his best to parent his own boys through phone calls. As time went on, he felt himself turning to parenting the kids he met while incarcerated, especially since there were so many young people inside. Rob realized he was becoming another man, even to the young men in the yard who had heard about the "past Rob." With them, he would reflect on his decisions as a teenager and ask: ”Where did it get me?"
Sometimes, he would return to his cell in tears at the thought of dying of old age in prison. For the youth he was mentoring, Rob's story would fill them with sorrow, but he'd turn it around: "If you feel bad for me, why are you going to go and do the same thing?"
Taking A Second Chance
He admits he can't reach everyone. Still, the adrenaline rush of success is too potent to give up on his gift of mentoring. So when he eventually got out, he sought out others to mentor.
When asked what he wants people to know about incarcerated people, Rob reminds us: "There’s intelligent people in there, and there are good people that made bad decisions in there, but they're still human beings," Rob said. He thinks when we fail to be more welcoming to returning citizens, refusing them opportunities, we repeat the vicious cycle that landed them inside will continue.
What does Rob think society needs to do to support those returning home after incarceration? "It's simple. See me as a human being." The hurdles thrown in front of people who are formerly incarcerated to get a job, Rob said, make it hard not to feel like you are anything but your conviction. It's unnecessary, Rob thinks, to come up with an academic explanation when it comes to seeing people as human beings and not criminals. While reflecting on this, he asks, "Why can't I just be Rob?"
Connecting Inside and Outside
The freedom that the Reentry Campus Program represents inspires Rob. To be able to go into the prison, see people he served time with, then walk out as a free person means a lot: “Because when you’re inside, you lose hope.” He describes what can go through your head thinking about the future after prison: “I’m a criminal, no one’s ever going to believe in me, no one’s going to hire me, I won’t be able to get a job.”
But there is power in seeing someone you were inside with coming back out and not just leaving as a free person but working with a mission to spread positivity.
Rob is clear about the importance of the Reentry Campus Program: “Education is power.” RCP is making education more accessible to those who may not consider themselves the right fit for college. Especially for older students, he said, who are searching for education later in life: “After a certain age, people give up on you in life, but RCP is going to give you that opportunity.”