web photofishingtrip

A “reel” Approach at Rehabilitation

By Jonathan B. Blanco

Rain drummed the windshield as I drove south to Eugene, and I found myself tuning into the rhythm of the rain drops that had eluded us Oregonians all summer long. Sponsors Inc., which provides reentry services in Lane County, had invited me to teach fly fishing to a group of program participants, and I was a little nervous. I hadn’t fished the McKenzie River in more than 20 years, but that wasn’t my source of anxiety. For the past 14 years, I’ve worked as a Correctional Officer, and my connection with offenders had been slightly different from what I was about to experience. I was the guy called upon to deploy a taser on out-of-control inmates or to discuss use-of-force strategies. Fishing was my preferred method of de-stressing from the prison environment. Never did I think I’d be sacrificing my therapeutic outlet by introducing a confirmed source of stress into my solitude.

About a year ago, I had an opportunity to develop a new prison entrepreneurship program within the existing hobby shop at the facility where I worked. During that time, I started to change the way I looked at (and felt about) my profession in corrections and the abilities I possessed to make a positive change in offenders’ lives. A couple months ago, I assumed a new position as a Prison Arts Program Coordinator, where I connect with small business support and education groups in the general public.

When I first toured the Sponsors facility, I marveled at the impressive operation. Beyond the selfless attitudes of the mentors and staff, one thing was apparent to me: dropping people exiting prison into the community without this kind of support could be catastrophic for their reentry success.

Now, pulling into the Sponsors the parking lot, I was energetically welcomed by Mentorship Program Director Jen Jackson. Jen is one of those individuals who constantly goes out of her way to help others, and you can’t help but admire her. As the facilitator of the McKenzie trip, Jen worried that the torrential rain would affect participation numbers. Along with Jen was Brian, a writer for a respectable outdoor magazine who had flown up from Arizona to take part in the McKenzie excursion. His normal writing topic was the healing qualities of the outdoors for returning military veterans. For him, switching gears to include Sponsors’ program participants seemed logical. I was completely stunned when Jen informed me that a couple of the people on the trip had GPS units on their ankles. I imagined the possibilities of tracing through the woods after a potential fugitive.

People started showing up and soon 10 of us were gathered in a small circle surrounding a long table. We introduced ourselves and explained why being in the outdoors is important to us. I expected to hear answers like, “Just something to do.” But to my amazement, most of the participants delivered a genuine answer to which I could relate. The energy and excitement was high despite the rain, and I became convinced that everyone was serious and eager to learn.

We piled into cars for a rainy drive to the river. When I arrived at Hendrick’s Bridge Wayside Park, I was greeted with a slight drizzle and a gusting wind. The Sponsors crew helped me unload my arsenal of fly fishing equipment. The covered picnic area seemed to be the logical area for the class. As I was setting up my fly-tying equipment, I noticed some of the participants staring intently at my tying tools. “Haven’t any of you ever seen these tools before?” I asked.  The man standing closest to me replied, “Those things could make a dental hygienist go cross-eyed.”

I chose two fly-tying volunteers, a man and a woman, and gave a short demonstration on tying a simple, but effective, trout pattern and the pair followed in sequence. The woman let out a spontaneous laugh and said, “I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this.” After finishing her fly, she sat for several minutes and stared at the creation in the palm of her hand. Every person who volunteered created a fly that was above beginner level in quality and could easily lure a fish. A brief discussion emerged with the group about the analogies between their lives and tying a fly, seeing it through one step at a time and overcoming obstacles that arise.

The morning advanced into day, and I knew it was time to wet some lines. I gathered the group and began instructing them on fly casting, which couldn’t be more opposite of casting a conventional style fishing rod. A fly rod requires timing, feel, and finesse. It didn’t take long for the group to catch on. Smiles broke through as the fly rods and participants started to sync. Now the group was ready. After a quick lesson on river safety, everyone was assigned a rod and sent off to fly fish the McKenzie River.

Jen had planned to fry up and feast on the group’s catches. I didn’t have high expectations for this knowing the group had to first catch something and there were only a few hours left in the trip. But before long, I heard some shouts. I walked along the river bank to investigate, and was surprised to see that a couple people had already landed fish. By day’s end, the group had caught enough trout for the entire crew. Jen set up the cooking station and fried up the catch as I put away the equipment.

As we savored the taste of fresh-caught trout, the group talked about the difficulties people exiting prison face when rejoining society. A major issue the group unanimously agreed upon was the pressure to resume relationships from their criminal past. An obvious calmness and clarity set the mood as the group began to speak about the benefits of the trip. Several participants told me that being outside on the river provided a way for them to just think and refresh their minds. Sometimes, clearing your mind sounds a lot easier than it really is. A consensus opinion emerged from within the group concerning the need for mental health breaks and making time to be outside. A couple of the group members even asked me where to purchase fly-tying equipment in Eugene.

On my journey home, I felt more than the usual rejuvenation from a successful fishing trip. Normally, I’d think about the fish I caught while blasting heat on my feet to bring back the feeling. Instead, I couldn’t help but wonder if moments like these few hours of fishing might prevent someone from going back to a life of crime. I’d like to think a few hours might, but it always comes down to individuals making the decision to change their lives for the better. I’m not going to stop trying. Six months ago, I was unaware of the good things people were doing to help people reentering the community. Having the opportunity to witness the good deeds through an organization like Sponsors was refreshing. I have been told before that my role in corrections could change lives. As I took in a deep breath, I started to realize the truths and possibilities of that even more.

Jonathan B. Blanco is the Offender Management and Rehabilitation Division Prison Arts Program Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Corrections