Crime & Courts

Wichita forum focuses on jail, prison reform

When everyone was asked to stand up if they'd ever done something they deeply regretted, three dozen people rose.

When asked to remain standing if they wanted their lives to be remembered for that one shameful event, everyone sat down.

David Wilkinson, a prison reform advocate and featured speaker at a Saturday forum on jail and prison reform, said the criminal justice system tends to remember former convicts for the worst acts they committed.

"We have this huge system that uses so much money, so many resources, to further demonize people," he said.

The forum, which was sponsored by Justice Keepers of Wichita, Woman to Woman, and Families First of Wichita, touched on such issues as jail crowding, sentencing disparities and recidivism. Much of the discussion was about prisons.

"We can't continue to be the world's largest incarcerator of human beings," said Justice Keepers founder Juanita Blackmon.

Many of those attending at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 7202 E. 21st, were former inmates like Wilkinson, or people who know someone in prison.

During a question-and-answer session, one woman told of an inmate who was unable to take a GED test because an education program at his prison had been eliminated.

Hutchinson Correctional Facility warden Sam Cline, who was in the audience, said inmate programs typically are the first eliminated when a prison system cuts its budget.

With just one teacher for his prison's 1,800 inmates, Cline said later in an interview, inmates must stand in a long line to get into a GED program. At its peak, the prison's education department had a staff of 12 and was comparable to a rural high school.

Several in the audience wanted to know how to get elected officials to pay attention to concerns about the criminal justice system.

"You have power beyond your understanding," said state Rep. Melody McCray-Miller, one of the afternoon panelists.

"We have to become activated, engaged and educated. And by educated, I'm not talking about a degree you get from a university. I'm talking about hearing it from someone who has experienced it.

"Short answer: continue to do exactly what you're doing."