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Changing Prison Culture through Mentorship

October 9, 2019

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

The following is part two of our two-part series about Malik Shakoor, the Washington Corrections Center’s new religious coordinator. (Editor’s note: As per 2019 legislation, prison chaplains are now referred to as religious coordinators.) In this story, we look at the impact of Shakoor’s work on the newly-launched incarcerated mentorship program.

SHELTON – It takes a lot to be a religious coordinator at a prison.

You have to be aware of the customs and traditions of an array of faiths. Like any chaplain, you teach, provide grief support, offer counseling, and engage in conflict mediation. Then you top it all off by helping people cope with emotions they can face in a prison environment: Fear. Depression. Guilt. Loneliness.

As the Washington Corrections Center’s (WCC) new religious coordinator, Malik Shakoor, wants to teach inmates that with the right motivation anyone can change.

But can changing oneself have an impact on prison culture?

Shakoor thinks so.

The power of mentorship

In May 2019, Shakoor launched a peer-led mentorship program for incarcerated individuals at WCC. The idea is to positively change prison culture through positive interactions among the incarcerated population.

“I want to show them that no matter how bad life beats you up, how painful it can get, or how far down the hole you think you may be, you can still get up, progress and move forward,” Shakoor said.

WCC is unique because of its diverse and constantly-changing population. The state sends all male inmates to WCC for initial classification, regardless of the type of crime they commit or the length of their prison sentence. Staff assess their medical and security level needs before assigning them to a prison to serve out their sentences. Sometimes they end up at WCC for the duration of their incarceration, but more often than not they’ll end up serving their sentences at different prisons.

Shakoor decided to tap into that diverse population. A group of “mentees” meet with their “mentors” in weekly sessions at the prison. Most of the mentees are new arrivals. A few have been incarcerated multiple times. All are individuals Shakoor thinks would benefit from hearing a positive message.

All the mentors have been incarcerated for many years. They say they’ve made strides in their rehabilitation and want to put an end to the ‘criminal mindset’ many of their peers try to cling to when they enter prison. The mentors share personal stories about mistakes they’ve made, what they’ve learned, and what they’re doing to keep themselves from making the same mistakes.

The goal, they say, is to create a safer environment for everyone and reduce chances of their peers returning to prison by teaching them how to make better choices.

“They’ve made changes in their lives in such a way they want to give back to these men who are about to enter the correctional system,” Shakoor said. “By hearing those testimonies and those stories, I want to plant that seed and hopefully strike change.”

An idea comes to life

Grady Mitchell says he’s one of those individuals who has changed. Mitchell, 60, is one of four mentors in the program. He worked with Shakoor to shape the program. His prison job is the chapel clerk. As such, he fills requests from inmates who request religious reading materials. He’s also serving a life without parole sentence for a murder conviction from 1984.

Mitchell initially came up with an idea for a mentorship program last year. He pitched it to Shakoor, who worked with prison leadership to start it.

Mitchell knows his actions won’t change his sentence, but he says mentoring others fulfills him because he can have a positive influence on others.

“I’m tired of seeing dudes come in here, not caring, thinking (prison’s) cool and not understanding the ripple effects of what they’ve done,” Mitchell said. “I thought there may be an opportunity here to do something.”

Mitchell has worked to be a role model to his six children despite being behind bars. He’s participated in parent-teacher teleconferences. He’s consulted his wife via phone and in-person prison visits about parenting decisions. He used the little money he earned from his prison jobs to buy small toys or cards on his kids’ birthdays and at Christmas.

His kids are now grown and living productive lives. One recently retired from the military. And one is a correctional officer in New Mexico.

He credits his transformation in prison to a woman who served in one of the prison’s volunteer programs, whom he said was “like a mentor.”

“Before, I think I was selfish and I didn’t know what I was doing when I bit into the apple of ‘the convict code,’” Mitchell said. “She told me, ‘You need to be a father, and don’t think that just because you’re in here you can’t be a father.’ I began living for me and my family and I began to see what was important.”

Mitchell shares that story and others during Shakoor’s mentorship sessions.

He says Shakoor’s presence goes a long way to motivate inmates.

“He wants to get out and talk to people,” Mitchell said. “He wants to look you in the eyes and talk to you and know you. He wants to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. He’s not saying you need to be Muslim, or you need to be a Christian or whatever. He just wants to encourage you to be a better person.”

Impact on Staff

Besides providing guidance to incarcerated individuals, Shakoor boosts morale among staff.

Shakoor meets with WCC staff for a few minutes at the start of each day during a leadership meeting called the “Morning Huddle.” He shares cultural awareness information and brief inspirational messages to help staff self-reflect and focus on personal wellness.

Superintendent Dan White says the meetings are also a way to get excited about the day.

“He goes out of his way to greet everyone warmly and starts each of our huddles with an enthusiastic ‘Woo!’” White said. “It sets the tone for a positive and productive work day.”

Correctional Officer Samuel Coleman says working in a prison is arguably one of the toughest jobs in America. Prison workers often put in long hours, and exposure to trauma is not uncommon.

He says Shakoor provides a bit of respite from what can be a stressful atmosphere.

“Having someone on staff everyone knows can be trusted creates a healthy, safe environment,” Coleman said. “A prison’s religious coordinator is that one person who, in all the madness, must be the calm in the center of the storm. He must display compassion for inmates and staff alike, no matter what the incident involves. I truly believe Shakoor is that shelter.”

Eventually, Shakoor wants to invite formerly incarcerated people who have served long prison sentences to come back as guest speakers to share with the mentees how they’ve succeeded outside prison.

Only time will tell if the mentorship program will have a long-term effect on changing prison culture. Shakoor’s already seen signs of metamorphosis in several of the incarcerated individuals he’s met. In fact, he’s already had 10 people from the mentorship group schedule regular counseling sessions because they say they’ve been inspired to make changes in their lives.

“There are some good men in here (prison) who have hit rock bottom, but I’ve met a lot of them who have changed their lives,” Shakoor said. “I live by saying ‘the content of our character is measured by our actions.’ Many of these individuals I’ve come in contact with have shown me and shared with me how a human being can change if they make a conscious decision to change.”

Previous week: Malik Shakoor: Religious Coordinator