It’s a prison that helps ease convicts back into society. You might not know it’s there or what it does. It’s right across from Wichita’s biggest entertainment venue, which is off-limits to the inmates.
It’s the Wichita Work Release Facility, on the southwest corner of Emporia and Waterman in downtown Wichita. Unless you work there or are an inmate, you are not supposed to step inside the controlled-access door.
The Kansas Department of Corrections invited media to tour the facility so the public would understand the facility’s role in helping offenders move back into the community. It’s the biggest work release center for inmates in the state.
About 250 men live there who are within the last 14 months of their prison sentences. They’ve been moved there from prisons around the state as part of their transition back into society. For a minimum of four months, the men spend their time at the two-story building when they aren’t working jobs. It’s a structured environment where they sleep and eat when they aren’t working. They also get counseling and attend programs on self-help and on dealing with substance abuse.
They undergo a week of orientation where staff can observe their adjustment to a community-based program. Then they have to seek jobs. Most men get daytime employment, but a few work second- or third-shift jobs.
They don’t wear inmate clothing while out in the work world. “You really don’t know if they’re an inmate or not” because they’re dressed like anyone else, said Kevin Oneth, administrative captain at the facility.
A Re-Entry Day brochure says it’s “very common” for someone to encounter one of the offenders out in the community. “Generally, the public has no idea he is an offender. Offenders work every job from food service” to skilled masonry.
“They are also allowed to shop at Wal-Mart alongside other citizens,” the brochure says. They are limited to shopping at the Walmart closest to the facility, Oneth said. They have to get a pass, for a limited amount of time, to go shopping. They have to give receipts so security staff can verify their purchases.
While out among the public, they face spot checks to make sure they are following the rules. When they return to the facility, they could be searched and tested for drugs or alcohol.
‘People can change’
By the time they reach the facility toward the end of their prison sentences, some of the inmates have been locked away for 20 years. Others, six months.
The average age of the men there is 38. The youngest is 20. The oldest, 65.
For them, the challenge is more than getting a job, said Monica Stricklin, an institutional parole officer at the facility.
“A lot of them don’t know how to socialize” because they have been behind walls for so many years, Stricklin said.
So staff at the facility help them with social skills and interview skills. They do mock interviews to prepare for people asking about their sentences. Some are open about it. For others, Stricklin said, “It’s still difficult for them to talk about.”
Matthew Rice, 28, of Topeka, has been living there for about 10 months. He’s about two months away from being released from the facility.
What is the biggest misunderstanding society has about people coming out of prison?
“People can change,” Rice responded.
Many inmates are in prison because of substance abuse, he said. Before he struggled with drugs, Rice said, he was a straight-A student.
“Drugs change people,” he said. “So if you can get help for that and change your life, anything’s possible.”
According to state records, Rice was convicted of aggravated burglary, attempted aggravated burglary and fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer for crimes in 2012 and 2013 in Shawnee County.
Rice said he blamed his criminal behavior on his past drug use.
Today, he works as a welder.
Paying their way
The inmates’ paychecks are entered into accounts. Each man has to fill out a budget.
In the facility’s basement Thursday afternoon, several inmates waited in line to get cash. Each showed an ID, and a staff member handed over an envelope. They get spending money once a week to buy snacks, pay for their laundry and help their families. Some of their work pay is automatically deducted to pay court costs, restitution and room and board.
The average wage they receive is $9.63 an hour, and on average each month more than 90 percent are employed, said Jesse Howes, deputy warden at the facility.
In one room, inmates looking for jobs get to use six computers — paid for by the inmates — to search job listings. Staff oversee computer use, and they are blocked from social media and any content dealing with alcohol, drugs or sex.
Right now, it’s a good job market for inmates. On average, it takes the men 13 days to find a job, said Corey Brock, a program provider at the facility.
Because the men have criminal convictions, they are disqualified from some jobs by law or by employers’ restrictions. Inmates won’t be able to get jobs stocking or serving alcohol for example, or in schools, Brock said.
Sometimes the barrier is self-imposed. “All of our guys have barriers, and a lot of the barriers are right here,” Brock said, pointing to his head.
Inmates also have an advantage: The Wichita area is a “pretty forgiving community,” Brock said.
The biggest short-term challenge to succeeding, Brock said, is getting transportation to and from jobs. The inmates can’t have cars while living at the facility. They walk, ride bicycles, take buses or taxis and get rides. In one situation, a family member is helping inmates get to and from jobs in Goddard.
Anxiety is another issue. “Their anxiety gets very high a month before their release,” said Brooke Mosto, a corrections counselor. “Because they’re scared they’re not going to make it when they actually get out on their own.”
Where they sleep
The tour veered into an open, first-floor room with 108 beds. The inmates have to stay in this section first. If they maintain a job and go at least 60 days discipline-free, they get to move to the second-floor dormitory.
They have to make their beds and keep their areas clean. Lights out at 10 p.m., lights on at 6 a.m. Meals three times a day in the cafeteria downstairs.
The first-floor dorm has clusters of bunk beds. It’s mostly four men to each area. Not much privacy. An officer roams the area 24 hours a day.
The second-floor dorm — where inmates move if they earn their way — has 146 beds. The beds there have partitions, so there’s a little more privacy.
On a day with triple-digit heat outside, the second-floor dorm was plenty cool with air-conditioning venting and fans humming.
It’s a solidly built, sleek, mid-century modern design structure with original multicolored tile floors and machined metal stairway railings. It is a former railroad headquarters.
It has been the Kansas Department of Corrections Wichita Work Release Facility since 1990. In 2002, female inmates at the facility were relocated to Topeka.
Can’t go to concerts
The inmates pay 25 percent of their wages for room and board, which amounted to more than $1.1 million going to the state in fiscal year 2017, officials said.
Inmates returning from work or shopping have to be buzzed in. If an inmate is late returning from work, the employer is contacted, but almost always it’s because the inmate was asked to work longer and the employer forgot to call the facility, Oneth said.
The number of inmates fleeing from the facility has been “greatly reduced,” he said. Maybe two inmates fled last year, and they were captured, he said. If an inmate fails to return, he could be charged with aggravated escape from custody and sent back to prison.
It’s rare, Oneth said, for a fight to break out at the facility.
The inmates live in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena, where thousands of people go to hear concerts.
Although the inmates can visit the public library and attend church and go shopping at the Walmart, they are prohibited from patronizing the entertainment venue across the street, Oneth said. It’s mainly because their activity there would be difficult to supervise, and because alcohol is served there. They’re prohibited from drinking.
After inmates are allowed to leave the facility and go out on their own, most are monitored under parole supervision.
Occasionally, a former inmate will drive back by the facility in a nice car, Oneth said.
“Kind of boasting of what they’ve got, and ‘Hey, I’m making it.’ ”