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How mentors can help ex-cons ease back into society

Nov 11, 2015

"We clicked, and I knew it had the potential for something good," says ex-con Tim Hurley (right) about his friendship with mentor Phil Christman.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

How do you navigate life on the outside after you’ve been locked up in prison for years? That’s a question more than 6,000 federal inmates recently faced when they were released early from prison due to changes in how the government sentences drug criminals.

So what does it take to successfully re-enter society?

We put that question to Tim Hurley, an ex-con who did two stints in prison. He says having a mentor once he got out helped him transition big time. 

I met up with Hurley and his mentor, Phil Christman, one late summer evening. At first glance, the two don't seem like an obvious match. "He is like an unabashed square," says Hurley about Christman, "but he's, like, really cool with it." Christman laughs in agreement. Yeah, he says, "I live my 'nerdery' wide open." They’re also nearly 25 years apart in age. While Phil Christman was in high school hanging out with the quiz bowl team, Tim Hurley says he was an alcoholic and dope addict running the streets of Detroit.

But their tastes overlap when it comes to punk music. That's how 61-year old Hurley and 37-year old Christman bonded the first time they met two years ago after Hurley had gotten out of prison for the second time.

Christman was assigned to be Hurley’s mentor through a University of Michigan program called Linkage. But not just any type of mentor, a creative writing mentor. The Linkage program pairs up artists with ex-felons who share an interest in the same field.

Life after prison comes with a ton of challenges: How do I get a job? How do I pay for groceries? How am I going to find housing? How do I repair the relationship with my loved ones?

So one Sunday night, Christman, a fiction writer and English lecturer at U of M, drove out to Royal Oak to Hurley’s garden level apartment, knocked on the door and introduced himself. The conversation quickly turned to their mutual love of punk music and almost immediately Hurley says he knew the relationship "had the potential for something good." 

Still, says Hurley, "transition isn't always a smooth road." To hear Hurley tell it, and Christman, who’s worked closely with lots of ex-cons, when you get out of prison you’re faced with an onslaught of challenges the minute you walk out the prison's gates. Things like: How do I get a job? How do I pay for groceries? How am I going to find housing? How am I going to repair the relationships with my loved ones?

So why in the world, when you’re dealing with all that, would you need or want someone to mentor you in creative writing? I put that question to mentor Phil Christman: 

"Why offer that instead of, you know, practical help?" jokes Christman. "I really suck at offering practical help." But as a creative writer, he saw the Linkage program as a way for him to "offer help that I can offer." 

Turns out Hurley was a writer, too. He discovered that in prison when he took his first creative writing class through a collaboration between the U of M and area prisons called the Prison Creative Arts Project.

He was supposed to write a 2,500-word essay, but he wound up writing 25,000 words. 

For Hurley, writing was salvation. He wrote about his struggles with drug addictions and the death of his younger brother. It’s what kept him going inside prison; it helped him heal.

Now that he’s out and sober, he still writes all the time. He shares his stories with Phil Christman and they talk about story arcs and swap editing tips. 

"Hanging out with these really square kind of writers," says Hurley, "it feels more like the freedom to just be who I am and [have] that kind of unconditional acceptance."

Hurley says his phone wasn’t ringing off the hook when he got home from prison, so to have a true friend and mentor like Christman means a lot to him. And he feels a responsibility to get it right, to not screw it all up and go back to prison.