Neal Lemery spends Sunday afternoons demonstrating ‘normal’ to young inmates
Every Sunday, cup of coffee in hand, Neal Lemery and a few buddies sit at a table in a small canteen swapping stories. Sometimes they play guitar or a game of cards. Mostly they talk about their future goals, trips they would like to take, dreams.
Other times, the conversation gets deeper and one of the buddies opens up about his childhood: his addict parents, the homelessness and sexual abuse that were what he understood to be a normal childhood.
Neal’s buddies are among the 50 inmates serving sentences for some type of sexual offense at the Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility.
Neal visits several times weekly. The task both gives him joy and mentally exhausts him.
“It’s pretty draining,” Neal says of his visits. “When I come home Sunday afternoon maybe all I’ve been doing is sitting at a table having coffee and playing a game. But this ‘normalcy time,’ is such a new thing for them and they drain you. They’ve never had it before and so they just absorb it. You have to monitor yourself.”
Neal has spent his life working with Oregon’s judicial system. He retired January 2 after 12 years as the Tillamook County Justice of the Peace. He was an Oregon lawyer for 32 years, served as a defense attorney and judge and has spent his entire career in Tillamook—the town where he was raised.
“I’ve sat in all the seats in the criminal justice system here,” he says.
As the Justice of the Peace, Neal officiated nearly 1,800 civil marriages and doled out traffic and fish and wildlife fines.
He says he has always tried to be fair-minded. Rather than locking people away, Neal values educating them. He asked drunk drivers to attend classes—and then report to him after the class with an essay about what they learned.
His biggest challenge as a judge was enforcing mandatory sentencing laws.
“We used to give judges discretion to do the right thing,” he says. “Certainly we’ve taken that away in criminal court. I think you need to consider the person and their circumstances and what’s best for the community.
“We have our own unique values and my job is to reflect the community’s values. The way to fix it is one person at a time, one day at a time. I think if you can change one person, it’s a good day.”
Two years ago, Neal took a call from a friend asking if he could mentor a young sexual offender whose father had died when he was only 15, and whose drug-addict mother would visit her son stoned. Since then, he has made regular visits.
These young men are locked away for a reason, he says. They committed a crime. But the truth is, their behavior was learned. Most were sexually abused as young children.
“People want to blame the ‘neighborhood pervert,’ but really, for nearly everyone there, it was a family member that abused them,” Neal says. “From them, they learned to victimize people.”
Some inmates will never recover from their own trauma, he believes, but he says others can and will, with the correct guidance and can be shown how to break the violent cycle they have known.
“We’re trying to figure out who they are, because they don’t know,” says Neal. “I come, we play Scrabble, have a nice Sunday afternoon like ‘normal’ people would. They’ve never had that. They’ve never gotten mail or a birthday card in their lives.
“One kid freaked out because we gave him a birthday party. He’d never had one. Can you imagine that? There’s been so much sexual abuse and violence; they just don’t know who they are as people.”
Neal’s wife, Karen Keltz, a retired high school English teacher, comes for many visits, too. Karen helps the young men finish high school paperwork and mentors them through college courses.
“She loves it,” says Neal. “They need a mom figure—a sober, decent mom that cares about them, too.”
There is one inmate who Neal has especially enjoyed mentoring. Perhaps it is because the young man is a gifted musician, learning the guitar from Neal in just a few weeks, or perhaps it is because he took the initiative to finish high school, is enrolled in college online and has nearly a 4.0 GPA.
“He writes songs, jazz, blues, rock and he wrote one about me,” says Neal. “It makes me cry every time he plays it for me. The lyrics say something like, ‘You never yelled at me, or gave up on me; you showed up and changed my life.’”
One of the ways Neal pledges to help is by being there when the inmates are released. As part of their terms of release, each needs to spend the first six months in the town where he committed his crime.
Neal sees them settled, enrolls them in college, takes them camping—a longtime wish of one inmate—and gives each every chance to succeed.
Neal plans to learn new hobbies and travel during his retirement. He also will continue to volunteer and mentor and will draft new legislation.
“I want to work on something systemwide around the state for better and more transition services,” he says.
Neal has roughed out a book about mentoring young men.
“There really isn’t a book out there that talks about the crisis in our country of growing up without a father,” he says. “The message I got at home from both my parents, and especially my dad, was ‘You have a brain and a body. You are a child of God, go out and do something!’ A lot of people don’t have someone in their lives to tell them that.
“That’s where I came in—in court as a judge and now, as a mentor. I say, ‘You have potential. You need to use it.’ And I will follow through the next time we meet and ask you, ‘Now tell me, what have you done to reach your potential?’”