Crime & Courts

Program's goal: Get mentors for Kansas inmates

Gov. Sam Brownback addresses his first Economic Summit meeting Monday, Apr. 25, 2011, at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita.
Gov. Sam Brownback addresses his first Economic Summit meeting Monday, Apr. 25, 2011, at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback wants every inmate leaving Kansas prisons to have a mentor.

He will speak at a conference in Wichita today that aims to bring people together toward that goal.

The Out4Life Kansas conference, which starts today and runs through Wednesday, is a partnership between the Kansas Department of Corrections and Prison Fellowship, a faith-based group from near Washington, D.C. The goal of Out4Life Kansas is to bring together government resources, businesses, social services and churches to provide support to inmates re-entering society.

Brownback is also supporting faith-based initiatives in the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

The conference is "designed to help build coalitions around the state so when an inmate gets out of prison, there are people out there to receive him," said Don Raymond, director of Out4Life Kansas. Speakers will include Brownback and Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts.

It is open to the public, but most people who will attend are already involved in mentoring programs for offenders. Representatives from churches and groups such as the Urban League have signed up.

About 5,000 people get out of prison in Kansas each year, Raymond said.

"This whole conference is designed to bring the stakeholders to the table" so those 5,000 people successfully re-enter society and don't return to prison, he said.

Out4Life Kansas hopes to train and recruit 5,000 mentors statewide, one for each inmate leaving prison.

"When an inmate gets out of prison, no one church or agency or organization can meet all his needs," Raymond said.

Those needs may include employment, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment.

"We're trying to have these coalitions that are ready to get an inmate, receive him and help him make that positive transition so he doesn't go back to his old playground and old playmates," Raymond said.

The goal is for mentors to work with inmates for at least six months before they get out of prison.

Out4Life operates in 12 other states — Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Lynn Everett McBride executive director of Central Kansas Prison Ministries in El Dorado, plans to be involved.

That group, which formed before the prison in El Dorado opened, works with inmates before they get out of prison. About 120 people volunteer, McBride said.

"If we can lower recidivism in the state of Kansas, that can save a lot of tax dollars," McBride said.

Prison Fellowship says that about 43 percent of offenders return to prison within three years, citing a Pew Center on the States study. They go back to prison either for a new crime or because they violated a condition of their release from prison.

Ric Hinson spent five years in prison and said he knew he didn't want to go back.

Hinson and his wife, Cheri, run RC Covenant, a Wichita group that ministers and provides resources to offenders.

Hinson got out of prison in 2004 after serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter. He was driving under the influence, he said, with a work partner and a friend of his partner's when he crashed.

"I was an idiot, an alcoholic," he said. "All three of us were ejected. My partner was killed. The female passenger suffered some broken bones."

Hinson was matched with a mentor through Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative. The mentor was a pastor at a Wichita church. Hinson met with him once a week for 12 months, "but we've continued our friendship since then," he said.

"He was very supportive of every move I was challenged to make," said Hinson, now a general contractor.

He said he doesn't think he would have re-offended without a mentor, "but had it not been for him, the direction I took... it might have taken a lot longer to get there."

The state is not paying anything to Prison Fellowship, said Jan Lunsford, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections. The only cost to the state for the conference will be travel and staff time, he said. Prison Fellowship will pay the operational costs of the mentoring program.

People who want to volunteer as a mentor will go through two sets of training, a spokeswoman for Prison Fellowship said. One will be with the Corrections Department and the other with one of the local nonprofits that offer mentoring.

People will be educated about the risks of working with ex-offenders and how to minimize those risks, Michelle Farmer said.

Prison Fellowship approached Kansas about Out4Life, Lunsford said.

After looking at its other programs in other states, "the people here are excited about the possibilities of this," Lunsford said. "We're looking for people and groups to help the cause. Mentoring really can make a difference."

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