A Pro at Helping Cons Navigate the Legit World

Posted on Sunday, May 15, 2022
by AMAC Newsline

AMAC Exclusive by – David P. Deavel

Crime is spiking these days all over the country in deep blue cities and blue states. A big reason is that people who have committed crimes are simply not prosecuted or let out early in the name of “equity” or some other progressive idea. California’s Office of Administrative Law announced in early 2021 that they would be letting 76,000 prisoners out of their sentences early. 63,000 of them were violent criminals, from which 20,000 were serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. The reason given by a spokeswoman was “to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons.” It probably won’t surprise readers that the Public Policy Institute of California reported in December 2021 that the year saw increases in both property and violent crime in California cities. Apparently the popular Democratic-Progressive model of letting people out of prison and telling them to be good doesn’t work out so well for the general population or for the offenders whom they claim to be helping.

It’s a much longer conversation, Rocky DeYoung tells me, but the question of which politicians and party have done more for our federal prison population is a very interesting one, the answer to which might surprise a lot of ordinary people inclined to think about only one party as “compassionate.” Suffice it to say that Richard Nixon prosecuted the War on Drugs with a lot of attention to treatment programs, a former Senator named Joe Biden has his name on a lot of “tough on crime” legislation that was not very nuanced, and the First Step Act, signed into law by Donald Trump in December 2018, was the first thing in decades that took any serious steps toward helping. That law wasn’t perfect, DeYoung tells me, since it only applied to about twenty percent of the federal prison population, but it was a good start at legislation that aimed at seriously reducing the recidivism rate and doing something concrete for a population that needs help.

DeYoung knows quite a bit about this. The sixty-something with a shock of white hair and goatee has been working with prisoners for almost thirty-five years in various capacities. He helped develop the Federal Reentry Court in Minnesota starting in 2014. In 2018, with Ken Ehling, CEO of Montage Marketing, he founded Montage Reentry Solutions, a social enterprise company that not only provides reentry curriculum for helping prisoners, counseling, and connections with companies open to working with former prisoners, but also works with that court to provide mentors to the people who are making the difficult journey from the slammer to the “legit world.” The kind of high-risk federal prisoners in this program usually return quickly to prison—at a rate of over 75%. Of the 150-or-so prisoners DeYoung and the mentors he has recruited and trained, worked with in this new program, they’ve only seen about 25% return.

DeYoung’s journey, he tells me over coffee, began when he was a Minnesota union construction worker who went to Korea for a five-week job in 1980 and ended up staying for eight years. During that time he ended up working with the first two missionaries from Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church to staff a hospitality house for soldiers working close to the DMZ. When he came home in 1988, he went back to construction work but he hadn’t lost his heart for helping people in dangerous situations.

When a friend invited him to attend a Bible study at Minnesota’s Moose Lake state penitentiary in 1988, a medium security prison, DeYoung met three friends from high school who were doing time. He decided to try to help them out when they got released. “It was a disaster,” he tells me, but the attempts convinced him “this was an area nobody’s doing anything in.”

He kept going back to Moose Lake every Sunday night for seventeen years, as well as making visits to Rush City, a state prison designated as “close,” one step up on the classification scale from medium security. In 2005 he was recruited by Prison Fellowship, Charles Colson’s organization, to serve as a counselor inside Lino Lakes state prison, another medium security institution. After one year in that role, he became a reentry manager for the group for another eight years. It was in that position that he started recruiting mentors for prisoners ending an eighteen-month reentry program.

It was at the end of that period in 2013 that DeYoung was recruited by the federal probation court to help develop a federal rehabilitation (or reentry) court, one of the first ones in the country—now there are about 75 of them. The idea was being pushed in Minnesota by two federal judges who understood that the system of rehabilitation was somewhat chaotic and was not working well—that 75% recidivism rate meant they were seeing the same people over and over again. Yet the idea was not without its critics from within different parts of the justice system, which can look askance at both potentially goo-goo social reformers as well as encroachments on professional turf. The judges wanted a “non-adversarial court” where they could sit down with the people they were sentencing and help them out.

DeYoung recalls that it took about a year to figure out how such a court would work and what would be most important. Almost all federal inmates are assigned to a halfway house for 6-12 months, then serve 3-5 years of probation. The halfway houses are, DeYoung thinks, “the weakest link in the process.” They often had little in the way of training for guys to figure out how to make it in the legit world. DeYoung is himself remarkably sympathetic to the men (and women) in these situations. “If you spend a lot of time growing up in an anti-social environment, then get thrown into a facility for ten or fifteen years with a lot of other people who are the same way, then get released and are expected to be pro-social, well, it’s unrealistic to expect them to succeed.”

What the team DeYoung worked with developed is a system in which high-risk inmates being released do actually deal with a judge—but also a whole team. At the state level, the only consistent actor in the ex-con’s journey from prison to the legit world is a Community Supervision officer. “At the federal level,” he tells me, “you screw up and you will probably see your sentencing judge if still around and possibly the same public defender. At the very least, there will be an assistant U.S. Attorney there. So you’ll have federal defender, district judges (versus magistrates), U. S. Probation, and mentors.”

Given the turf issues and the number of players, this sounds a bit complicated. Rocky says, “While there are a lot of moving parts, we function pretty well as a team.” And many of the teammates are pretty good. While state-and-local public defenders are often referred to as “public pretenders” in many places, Rocky insists that the federal public defenders are top-notch.

DeYoung was the one who pushed for the mentors for the court in the first place, which are unique in the U.S. system.  In 2018, he left the federal system and, with Ehling, CEO of Montage Marketing, DeYoung helped create Montage Reentry Solutions. Montage now contracts with the federal courts in Minnesota to recruit mentors for the reentry court and provides other services to the men and women he was dealing with and the institutions serving them. They also create educational materials to help those in different stages of the process and work with companies to place the prisoners in jobs.

The educational programs are a work in progress. Though many prisons have Release Preparation Program courses, they are often not well thought-out or developed. Many of them will just check the box with something. In one prison he visited on behalf of Minnesota’s Collaborative Justice Project, the then-current class consisted of a 20-minute video on how to shoot pool.

What he’s worked to do in such institutions is something different. DeYoung recounts meeting with a reentry council of 35 inmates in another institution and asking them for ideas. What they were able to come up with was an eight-week reentry program that met for two hours per week and prepared them for what the halfway houses they were headed for would demand. At the women’s prison in Waseca, Minnesota, he helped set up the first employment education program at the prison since it reopened after COVID. The big thing is to teach them how to deal with freedom by teaching them how to be responsible. His theory: “Teach them to take ownership of what you do. And to make plans.”

Concerning the mentors, DeYoung actively recruits people he thinks would make good ones, but some people come to him after listening to his podcast, Kickin’ it Off the Grid. (While there are a number of podcasts about prison life, this is one of the only ones dealing with reentry issues.) I ask DeYoung whether they are mostly serious religious believers. He says that a great many are, but being one is not, of course, a requirement for the program. Who does or doesn’t work?

DeYoung tells me that, perhaps counterintuitively, people involved in addiction recovery programs often don’t work out well. “People in the recovery world—I tend to stay away from them. They tend to learn to talk about themselves. I don’t need that. You’ll never out war-story guys from federal prisons.”

When DeYoung does find recruits, he takes them to visit prisons a couple of times and then interviews them. Sometimes he’ll hear, “I don’t know if I have anything that will be of interest to them.” DeYoung laughs and notes how wrong that is. “If somebody tells them, ‘I’ve never been in trouble and I’ve always done well,’ prisoners will look at them astounded—because that’s what they want.”

That very seemingly boring existence is usually made possible by having developed a number of ordinary life skills that the recruits haven’t even thought about themselves having. But DeYoung has. “I’m looking for guys who can really help them navigate the legit world. Many prisoners have never had a job. They don’t know what paid time off is. They have to have credit restored. We have a group that works with us to help guys get their [drivers’] license restored.” Many of these prisoners need help dealing with relationships of all kinds.

He’d love to have more, but currently he has a dozen mentors working with him who represent very diverse backgrounds: black, white, Asian, male, female, former felons and businessmen. They usually mentor one person at a time while Rocky takes on more. Right now he has eight. He takes on the toughest figures. And he works to keep connections with all of the people his clients are working with throughout that process of prison, halfway house, and probation.

The work he’s been doing is bearing some fruit. There has been interest in some other parts of the country in using both his curriculum and his mentoring program. COVID stopped much of this, but as the country has opened up, he’s been getting more interest again. But I get the sense that he’s happy with the fruit that has come from his work thus far.

One aspect of Montage’s work that is also fairly distinctive is their work on placing prisoners in jobs after their release. DeYoung says that though Minnesota has some good programs aimed at employment, one weak spot is actually placing these men and women.

He tells a few stories of his successes, most of which end with the client saying to him something along the lines of, “Damn, I wish I had known how to do this twenty years ago!”

One story is of a guy who had never worked a day in his life. While in a Rochester, Minnesota federal prison for eighteen years, he earned his journeyman’s electrical license. When he was nearing release, he was placed in the reentry program and Rocky got him connected with a company that works on cell phone towers. They offered him a job making $46 an hour. When he was about to start, Rocky told him, “Give me a call after your first paycheck.”


“Just call.”

The ex-con electrician did call him. He was ecstatic. That guy, Rocky says, is now able to take care of his mother. And his girlfriend. He has a house. He has a car. “And that money has value because he earned it.”

The Californian or blue state notion of simply letting offenders out of prison and telling them to be good is not good for their neighbors or them. Even if they have turned the corner and want to make it work in the legit world, they seldom have the knowledge or skills to navigate either personal or professional life. They also don’t have the consistent attention or help of people who do have them. The Federal Reentry Court provides a framework and a bit of that consistency, but it is the genius of Rocky DeYoung to see that what is needed to help ex-prisoners is those ordinary people who can hire ex-offenders, teach them about relationships and job skills, and serve as mentors in a way people from the justice system often cannot. DeYoung realizes that it takes, as he says, “better educated people from the private sector to do what the system says it can do.”


David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast. Follow him on GETTR @davidpdeavel.

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