Counselor uses grit and hope to reach inmates

ABERDEEN — Marilyn Meldrich knows a thing or two about tough times.

Today, she has a great family and a stable life, but there was no guarantee it would turn out that way. Her father didn’t get past eighth grade and her family didn’t place a premium on education.

She got pregnant in high school and dropped out, becoming a single mother, struggling to stay afloat.

In her 20s, she earned her high school equivalency degree and, at the age of 26, a driver’s license for the first time. That was the year she started college. Not knowing there were Pell Grants — heck, not knowing there were student loans of any sort — she toiled her first year to pay for her education and support her family.

Through it all, Meldrich, now 48, has been powerfully optimistic. Her blunt style is offset by a sense of humor.

The combination of grit and hope has made Meldrich an effective counselor at Stafford Creek Corrections Center southwest of Aberdeen.

Being a counselor at the prison means Meldrich has one compelling priority: thinking about the lives of the men she works with once they get out. Everything she does is aimed at making sure they will have stable, productive lives.

It’s a given that she is also deeply concerned about their potential to reoffend.

A counseling session with an inmate scheduled for release within the month left her troubled.

“For the first time, I’m worried that a guy won’t make it,” Meldrich said.

The man has organic brain damage and severe mental illness. Meth has eroded what little mental facility he had left. A minute after she tells him something, he’s forgotten it.

How is he supposed to remember to take the medications that keep him even-tempered? Meldrich worries.

The man is diminutive; his wispy mustache is striped with white.

“You wouldn’t think it, but in the incident that put him here, they had to have a SWAT team to get him,” Meldrich said, adding that the key to keeping him out of prison is his family. He’s going to a halfway house near Vancouver. His brother, who lives nearby, will need to keep on him to take his medication and prevent him from violating his parole. Otherwise, he’s back in the slammer.

Meldrich’s job is giving offenders the tools they’ll need to put together a life on the outside. She works with about 65 to 80 inmates, depending on the number of counselors, who are always in short supply, and her clients run the gamut.

There’s the older Cuban man who explained to her that he never dealt drugs. “He just ‘financed’ them,” Meldrich said with bemusement. “He’ll do fine on the outside.”

Then there’s the man who told her with a straight face that a 7-year-old girl seduced him.

“You have to keep a separation,” Meldrich said. She can’t look at the many convicted child molesters she counsels and see their crime when she talks to them.

“We’re not here to become their friends or confidants,” echoed LouAnn Anderson, another counselor at the prison. “We’re here to guide them appropriately.”

Not that Meldrich’s job hasn’t had a chilling effect on her.

“I never locked my doors until I started this job,” she said. And now she looks at men — upstanding, professional, family men — completely differently. She’s worked with too many child molesters with histories that, on the surface, appear pristine. Happily, “They almost always have the best support once they get out,” Meldrich said.

Before Meldrich worked at the prison, she worked with at-risk youth. Before she considered working at Stafford Creek, she volunteered to see if she liked the environment. She worked on the “Long Distance Dads” program and absolutely loved it. Her experience there encouraged her to try out to be a counselor, much to her family’s consternation.

They shouldn’t worry much.

Meldrich has a “don’t mess with me” mentality, and challenges the offenders in ways they aren’t used to.

Take the man with seven kids by five women. Meldrich asked him how he explained to his 13-year-old twins and their 13-year-old half-sibling why they were so close in age. She also asked him if it upset him that the three of them said they weren’t bothered by his being in prison.

“Do you want them to be in gangs?” Meldrich asked him.

“No,” he said.

“Then why are you still in the game?”

“She don’t pull no punches,” the inmate said. He’s working on developing a better relationship with one of his daughters who is going through a particularly rough patch. They talk at least once a week.

“She taught me to be a parent to my children,” he said.

“She needs that special stuff,” Meldrich encouraged him.

Or take the guy with the teardrop tattoo by an eye. Which cheek the tear is on and whether it is filled in or not denote different meanings, he explains. His tattoo denotes his sentence for an accidental killing.

“You proud of that?” Meldrich asked, her displeasure and disbelief evident in her voice.

“Yeah! Not everybody gets to kill somebody,” the inmate responded as he walked out.

“I just can’t understand that right there,” Meldrich said. She wonders sometimes how it’s possible to help people who aren’t contrite stay out of trouble.

Meldrich also gets to deal with inmate emotions, especially since her office is about as private a space as it gets in prison and offenders take public expression of feelings as a weakness.

But much of her day is taken up by mundane stuff — trying to figure out what happened to a check deposited in an offender’s prison bank account by a relative; figuring out whether a transferred inmate’s educational information has come to the prison; or working out an inmate’s medical issues. Mostly she answers their questions. Other times, when appropriate, she tells them how they can figure out their problems.

Because of her contact with inmates, she has a voice in classification, the all-important system that assigns offenders to different levels of security, determines if they can participate in programs and has other consequences.

Meldrich and Dennis Cherry, the custodial unit supervisor, recommended denying an inmate’s request to be released 10 days early, although both of them said it was less personal and more related to scores the man accumulated over his time in court and prison. The prison uses more “metrics” than a decade ago.

This particular inmate has one score that rates his tendency to violence at 45 out of 55. The numbers say he is likely to reoffend. The details of his crime are laid out in explicit detail, and his criminal history mentions he pleaded down to third-degree rape from second-degree rape.

“What use would it be to send him out into the community 10 days early?” Meldrich asked rhetorically.

Still, Meldrich remains an optimist. Sometimes her clients are, too — often unrealistically. One offender thinks he has a letter from a religious, residential drug-recovery facility that will secure him early release. All he needs is an address. But the letter makes it clear that the address won’t be forthcoming unless he “maxes out,” or uses up all his time. Inmates generally won’t serve their entire sentences unless they are poorly-behaved or would leave prison homeless.

The inmate staunchly refuses to believe the truth, even when Meldrich puts the center’s pastor on speakerphone.

The pastor tells Meldrich and the offender that the church is not going to give an address for early release. They’ve done it before and been burned by inmates who have never shown up.

“Why don’t you guys want to give me a chance?” the inmate protested.

Meldrich also told the pastor about the offender’s mental health problems. He’s bipolar. The recovery center does not accept people with serious mental illness, and won’t take him.

The inmate swears that he has been off his meds for two months and is doing great.

After the inmate leaves, Meldrich said, “If we had great mental health care for everyone, made sure everyone took their pills, had drug rehabilitation, we’d lose 80 or 90 percent of the guys in here. But we don’t.”

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