Mario Birch said he has spent plenty of his 37 years behind bars, wearing jail and prison garb.
But on Wednesday, he got to stand in front of television news cameras in a conference room at the Sedgwick County Jail complex wearing a shiny graduation gown – even though he is still an inmate for a few more days.
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office wanted reporters to hear Birch talk about a new mentoring program designed to help inmates change their thinking, to guide their actions in a positive way. Birch is among 10 inmates to recently graduate from the program.
Officials say the program uses volunteers – educators, social workers and ministers – to provide mentoring, support and a problem-solving, anger-management approach. While in jail, the inmates meet regularly with their mentors to help them transition back into the community. After their release, they continue to meet with mentors.
Officials stress that the program is free. The graduates wear donated gowns, for example.
Birch said he is a changed man because of the program. He cried at the graduation. Crying in front of others?
“I don’t do that,” he said.
“A lot of us, our childhood wasn’t great.”
Before the program, he said, his life had hit bottom, and he needed a boost.
“I’ve never had goals,” he said.
Now, Birch – who said he has struggled most of his life with drugs and alcohol – aspires to become a drug and alcohol counselor. The program revealed to him that that’s what he is meant to do, he said.
He said the program is helping him and other inmates “be better fathers, be better sons.”
“It teaches us to slow our thinking processes down,” to avoid the bad thoughts and the risky ideas and to deal with anger, he said.
“The majority of time, we act without thinking. That gets us into the amount of trouble we get into,” he said.
“Thought is the cause of everything. So if we change our thoughts, we can change our lives.”
He has confidence now.
“If I do come back here (to the jail), it will be to mentor to other inmates.”
He sounded as though he understood his challenge.
“The real battle,” he said, comes outside the jail.
On Wednesday, Birch was just a couple of days from being released.
When that time comes, he said, he will have to “meet the true test.”