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Aug. 1, 2011
TOPEKA Imagine that you’ve just been released from prison after a long sentence.
Those iron bars clanging shut behind your back represent freedom, but where do you go and what do you do now? A family or church member might pick you up at the gate, but who will rent a home or give a job to an ex-con?
Officials in Missouri and Kansas recognize that helping former inmates reconnect with society reduces the chance they will return to prison. Lower recidivism rates contribute to healthier communities by helping society avoid the various costs of new crimes and repeated demands on the justice system.
And for every former prisoner who finds work and a stable life on the outside, there is perhaps one fewer person caught in the interlaced cycles of poverty, poor health and crime that by now have been well documented in economic studies.
According to a 2007 Government Accounting Office report on poverty in America,
“economic research shows that poverty is associated with a number of adverse outcomes for individuals, such as poor health, crime, and reduced labor market participation, and has a negative impact on economic growth. Some research suggests that adverse health outcomes are due, in part, to limited access to health care as well as exposure to environmental hazards and engaging in risky behaviors. The economic research we reviewed also suggests that poverty is associated with higher levels of certain types of crime.”
Philanthropies recently have tried to bolster the reintegration process on the Missouri side of the Kansas City area through the Second Chance Program of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
And in Kansas, officials also are trying new approaches. Gov. Sam Brownback in June announced a faith-based partnership that has the goal of providing a trained mentor to each of the 5,000 inmates released annually from the state’s prisons.
“A great plan”
The Brownback plan sounds good to Sam Jones, 59, of Kansas City, Mo., who served a 23-year term for murder and robbery in Kansas before his release on parole in 1997.
Jones is now an ordained minister and factory worker who counsels prisoners as part of an ecumenical, not-for-profit group based in the Kansas City area called Reaching Out From Within.
“I think it’s a great plan,” Jones said of Brownback’s new program, which is called Mentoring 4 Success. “It’s been needed for a long time — having a mentor before you leave prison. That’s how I made it.”
Reaching Out From Within has been working with prisoners and former prisoners for nearly 30 years, and its leaders have pledged to be part of the new Mentoring 4 Success effort.
Brownback administration officials have said there will be no new funding for the Department of Corrections to execute Mentoring 4 Success. Rather, inmates who are on target for release will be paired with a volunteer mentor, who will then follow up with the former inmate during his or her first year on the outside.
The sheer number of mentors needed is daunting. That’s where the faith-based groups are expected to come in.
According to Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Jan Lunsford, officials of the Virginia-based Prison Fellowship first approached Kansas about expanding their mentoring program here.
Charles Colson, who went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, founded the Prison Fellowship in 1976.
At a conference attended by more than 200 people June 20 in Wichita, Kansas became the 13th state to partner with Out 4 Life, which is a separate entity developed in 2007 by Prison Fellowship.
For more than a decade, the state penitentiary at Lansing has provided space for another Prison Fellowship-sponsored entity, the Innerchange Freedom Initiative (IFI).
IFI functions much the way Mentoring 4 Success is supposed to work: It pairs volunteer mentors with pre-release inmates, who then continue their relationship after release.
Prison Fellowship and IFI are explicitly Christian organizations. But Lunsford said that not every potential mentoring partner is a faith-based organization. Many of the groups represented at the Wichita Out 4 Life kickoff event were not faith-based, “and certainly not denomination-based,” Lunsford said.
Reaching Out From Within is perhaps the best example of this. The not-for-profit entity is an outgrowth of the Stop Violence Coalition, which was founded in 1979 by SuEllen Fried of Prairie Village.
Fried is best known as author of several books on the effects of childhood bullying, and she considers her work with prisoners to be an offshoot of those efforts.
Fried, who recently turned over the presidency of Reaching Out From Within to Russell Thompson, was circumspect when asked whether she thought Brownback’s new initiative will succeed.
“It’s an awesome challenge,” Fried said. “I hope it becomes a practical solution.”
Barry Mayer is a former major and division commander with the Kansas City, Mo., police department. He is working on the issue of prisoner transition in his current role as vice president of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Mayer oversees the Crime Commission’s Second Chance Program, founded in 2008 with funding from the J.E. Dunn Foundation.
“We were approached by Bill Dunn Sr., whose (Dunn Construction) company is one of the leading prison builders in the country,” Mayer said. “It bothered him that we need so many prisons.”
The Dunn Foundation provided the seed money to form the Second Chance Program, while other philanthropic entities have helped to sustain its work, including a study of the gaps in services for former prisoners making the transition to public society.
The Crime Commission established a Second Chance Risk Reduction Center where the focus is on helping ex-cons find housing and other resources to get back on their feet.
The center hosts “Welcome Back” parties twice a month, congratulating the former prisoners and helping them network. And it has formed a Kansas City Metropolitan Reentry Coalition to build even more support.
On Aug. 12, the Kansas City Metropolitan Reentry Coalition will host a Transitional Jobs Forum for about 100 business owners and local elected officials, including Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James.
According to a letter from the mayor inviting employers and others to the event, the organizers “will reveal the value of transitional jobs to metro-area governments, elected officials, business leaders, foundations and the broad community. … Transitional jobs improve public safety, increase tax revenue, develop skilled workforces, and create opportunities to ensure success of former offenders and other special populations.”