The Amy Awards: Deborah Mejchar mentors for better peer support in prisons

Prison chaplain and certified peer specialist is recipient of a 2022 Amy Award
Photo by Chris Hynes
Deborah Mejchar

Prison chaplain and certified peer specialist Deborah Mejchar retired this summer, but she’s devoting herself to building an initiative in correctional institutions. She makes the long drive to Oshkosh to lead a book group she started for other certified peer specialists who are currently incarcerated at the Wisconsin Resource Center, a medium-security state prison specializing in mental health treatment and which once employed Mejchar, or to Waupun Correctional Institution, where the warden knows and welcomes her. They discuss books like “The Alchemist,” “The Warmth of Other Suns” and “The Latehomecomer,” all of which Mejchar got donated from Jerry Hancock of Madison’s Prison Ministry Project. At the end of the day, the book group’s members return to their cells. Mejchar walks out the doors and drives home to her husband — a freedom she’ll never take for granted.

“I had a 20-year prison sentence myself,” says Mejchar, who served six and a half of those years for drug-related felonies before her 2001 release. At first she never wanted to step foot in a prison again, but a calling brought her back inside correctional institutions to support staff and currently incarcerated individuals (as well as when those individuals are released back into the community). “I just knew I wasn’t going to have the same life I had before,” says Mejchar, whose efforts led to a 2010 pardon from Gov. Jim Doyle.

Mejchar says her reentry was eased by a supportive family, which includes daughter Carmella Glenn of Just Bakery, a culinary educational and vocational program for individuals facing significant barriers to employment. Mejchar grappled with drug addiction and survived a violent first marriage, but she didn’t think of those experiences as things that might be helpful to others until she met people she considers mentors. Among many, one mentor was Antonia Vann, founder of Milwaukee’s The Asha Project. Her visit to Mejchar’s prison opened her eyes to what she’d endured and led her to volunteer at the organization upon her release. Mejchar dove headlong into education, earning a University of Wisconsin–Madison degree in 2005 and taking five units of clinical pastoral education with Meriter Hospital spiritual care director Jeff Billerbeck, who went to bat for her. She became a prison chaplain for 15 years, serving Red Granite and Fox Lake correctional institutions. She started collaborating with Just Dane’s “Voices Beyond Bars” initiative and served on the board, where she took a strategic planning course from Amy Gannon. “She was really there for us,” Mejchar says. “She was powerful.” Four years ago, she trained to become a certified peer specialist. Two years ago, she began working at WRC, where she started the book club.

“Deb is teaching incarcerated peer specialists how to cultivate compassion and understanding in order to better serve their clients, who often struggle with trauma, mental health and substance abuse issues,” says another mentor, UW–Madison psychiatry professor Michael Koenigs, who nominated Mejchar for this award.

“This book club is so new, I’m excited about other people hearing about it, because it’s bigger than me,” says Mejchar, who plans to use this award to expand the initiative. She has about 20 members between three institutions so far, but there are 220 certified peer specialists working throughout Wisconsin’s prisons — imagine if they all received the empathy, education and support that participating in these book clubs brings? “That’s my dream,” Mejchar says.

Maggie Ginsberg is senior editor at Madison Magazine.

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