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Summit focuses on ideas to help inmates reintegrate, avoid relapse

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 18, 2013, at 9:16 p.m.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated David Wilkinson’s prison term. He served 56 months for cocaine possession.

Speaking as advocates for thousands of incarcerated Kansans, four former inmates this weekend called for broad changes to the Kansas prison system to help nonviolent drug offenders get treatment and deter relapses.

David Wilkinson spent 56 months in prison after he was convicted twice of cocaine possession. After his first release, he said, he was put on a waiting list for a spot in a drug rehabilitation program.

Homeless and with no support – problems facing many offenders, he said – Wilkinson used drugs again and landed back in prison.

“They didn’t have a bed for me in treatment, but they sure had a bed for me in Sedgwick County Jail,” said Wilkinson, a prison reform advocate.

“Treatment is more effective than prison.”

Wilkinson’s story was one of several shared during a panel discussion Saturday at the first National Prison Summit on Incarceration, an all-day meeting focused on prison ministry programs and issues affecting Kansas prisoners.

Approximately 9,500 inmates are held in the state’s prisons – among them nonviolent drug offenders who panelists say would benefit from substance abuse rehabilitation programs if they were implemented within jail and prison walls.

“We need legislators and others invested in real treatment programs so drug and alcohol users don’t relapse,” Peter Ninemire, an former convict turned addiction and mental health specialist, told the crowd of 200 gathered at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Wichita.

Saturday’s panel discussion covered an array of topics, including an appeal to give judges discretion to deviate from sentencing guidelines in drug cases and suggestions to strengthen prison ministry programs given by Brian Robinson, who leads a Bible study at El Dorado Correctional Facility through Team Saint Mark Prison Ministry.

Vickie McDaniel, released in 1999 after serving time in prison for aggravated burglary, encouraged the crowd to maintain regular contact with inmates – especially those who are family and friends – and stay in contact with their attorneys.

There was also a call to abolish the drug offender registry – dubbed “one of the worst obstacles to reintegration” by Ninemire – and a proposal to mandate education programs for inmates.

In response to requests for mandated education and rehabilitation, Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts, who attended the summit and later gave a speech, agreed that programs are needed but said they require funding and “state legislation to accomplish that.”

Forty-five percent of Kansas inmates do not have high school diplomas or the equivalency, and 38 percent are mentally ill, said Roberts, adding that the corrections department recently added a mentoring program and works with prison ministries.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com.

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