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Kansas inmate program hopes to stem repeat offenders

“When I Come to Die” concerns a prisoner’s second chance at life.  Reaching Out From Within prepares inmates for life after prison release.  KC Rep, ROFW, and playwright in residence, Nathan Louis Jackson teamed for a ROFW benefit.
“When I Come to Die” concerns a prisoner’s second chance at life. Reaching Out From Within prepares inmates for life after prison release. KC Rep, ROFW, and playwright in residence, Nathan Louis Jackson teamed for a ROFW benefit.
Don Ipock

Kansas City Repertory Theatre: playwright in residence at the KC Rep, Nathan Louis Jackson; and a Kansas inmate program, Reaching Out From Within, pooled their resources and hosted a benefit performance of the last play at the Rep, “When I Come to Die,” to benefit the Kansas program that now functions in 20 prisons (18 in Kansas) to raise awareness to the prisoner situation and help foster a better pathway for released inmates.

The benefit, March 13, featured the then current production at the KC Rep, “When I Come to Die,” by Nathan Louis Jackson. Jackson, originally from Kansas City, KS penned the play that concerns a death row inmate who gets a second chance. While the inmate’s second chance is far beyond the norm for such inmates it does draw attention to the prison problem throughout the United States and looks at the question: What does one do with a second chance?

Reaching Out From Within, does that. The program goes into prisons and works with inmates to prepare them for a second chance after release. Because the play centered on a man who escapes death through some unexplained twist of fate, ROFW thought the play to be significant enough to partner with the Rep and the playwright and subsequently bought out the house and used the performance as a benefit for their program. The show on March 13, planned to raise money and awareness for their program.

“I’m the Audience Development Manager,” Roderick Duplissie of the KC Rep, said. “Part of my job is to find and coordinate with groups like ROFW who have an interest in the power of theatre. The theme of “When I Come to Die” is an important aspect of what ROFW is trying to get across to its friends and supporters. I handle the logistics of putting together their fundraiser around the Rep’s production.”

Reaching Out From Within, an organization formed in Lansing, Kan. works with inmates in 20 locations, 18 in Kansas to help change the aspect of inmates as they work their way through the penal system, Russ Thompson, board president of Reaching Out From Within, said. The other two chapters of the program in North Carolina are just now getting underway.

“ROFW is a passionate group that is wholly invested in the rehabilitation, education and reintegration of inmates back into the population,” Duplissie said. “I’ve met some wonderful people, with huge hearts and a passion for those who have made mistakes. One of my first impressions was of SuEllen Fried (founder of BullySafe USA) who took Nathan and me to Lansing Correctional to attend one of the inmate’s meetings. It was a little uncomfortable at first to sit in a circle with 20 inmates, but ten minutes into the meeting, we were laughing and sharing stories. There were tears shed, and we all left as new friends.”

ROFW changes the way inmates look at life and their approach to life, Thompson said. ROFW wants to make a difference in the inmates before their release. As such, volunteers go to the prisons and meet with inmates, and prisoners love people coming in and treating them with respect. They enjoy the opportunity to have contact from outside the prison and willingly work with our volunteers.

At the benefit, many of the leaders and founders of ROFW attended as well as sponsors and “alumni” of the program–released prisoners. One such man served 31 years for a crime he did not commit. He spoke to the audience before and after the performance. Ronald “Ronnie” Rhodes visited with patrons before the show and afterward continued to visit with attendees to help them understand his story.

“After serving 31 years of incarceration I was finally released from prison. On September 5, 2012, I walked out of prison walls and walked into a world I knew nothing about,” Rhodes said. “My first day of freedom was emotional and eventful. I was overwhelmed and I soon faced the fact that I was not significant as a person. In prison, everyone knew me and knew me for something–I was the prisoner that could help fight legal battles. As walked my new freedom steps, everything appeared to be different. The air was clearer, the sun was brighter, pants and trees were more beautiful and everything was new to me.”

The benefit performance of Jackson’s “When I Come to Die” began with appetizers and beverages at 6p.m. Curtain time was 7p.m. Immediately after the one-act play ROFW invited the audience to stay and participate in a conversation with ROFW alumni.. A dessert reception with the playwright and alumni began at 9:15 in the lobby. The pre and post show receptions gave Rhodes and others the opportunity to discuss the benefits of the ROFW program and explain how it helped them with the transition from incarceration to freedom.. More information about ROFW can be found at their website: www.rofw.org.

“Since being out, I have had to adjust to things that were never an issue while I was in prison. Outside, I am constantly reminded about how to speak to people and constantly reminded about how my reaction must be to certain things. I have created certain goals for myself, and they are big goals.

“I am attending the National American University for Paralegal Studies, and, I am maintaining a 3.41 GPA. It was 4.0 but my grades dropped a bit regarding certain classes, the class about computers and accounting--subjects I had no clue about. The experience has been fun, enlightening and challenging. I love it. I love and cherish the interaction with the other students I meet each semester. I really like the Instructors and professors I have had thus far. I earned a paralegal certificate while I was incarcerated in 1996. From a correspondence school located in Atlanta, GA, PDI (Professional Career Development Institute). However, I wanted to validate myself with a degree out here,” Rhodes said.

ROFW points to such success stories as a main purpose of their volunteer work inside the correctional institutions. The organizations want to prepare prisoners for life after incarceration and give them tools to adjust to their second chance, Thompson said.

“I started serving as a volunteer sponsor with the Reaching Out From Within group at Lansing Correctional Facility, Minimum Custody, in 1996,” Thompson said. “The group met for two hours, weekly, and was one of four ROFW groups in Kansas. There are now 20 ROFW groups, 18 in Kansas and two in North Carolina.”

ROFW offers support for inmates while incarcerated and then mentors them upon their release to aid them into re-entry into society. The stigma of being a convicted felon weighs heavily on them, Rhodes said. He said he is determined to make the most of his second chance at life with freedom.

“I have an awesome support system and all are from Reaching Out From Within. I have been a member of since May 2004. ROFW is a life changing program. At the very least, it has changed my life; and, I support it with all of my being. I am an alumni now that I am outside. I work at a pretty decent job. I have recently registered my non-profit corporation named Freedomkey. The vision and goal of my corporation is to provide a service, education and advocacy for ex-offenders. We believe that persons who commit crimes must be punished,” Rhodes said.

The nationwide problem, two to three million prisoners in the United States, makes the USA the most incarcerated population in the world, Thompson said. He further said that very little is done to prepare inmates to re-enter society once their sentence ends.

“Most are just let go, with no plan or structure in place to help them,” he said. “Kansas is very progressive in working with inmates prior to their release so they do not become repeat offenders and end up back in prison. Our recidivism rate is 35 percent. Nationwide, the rate is near 50 percent.”

ROFW, according to Thomson, a volunteer group set objectives for inmates to learn before their release:

  • Understand that no one has the right to hit anyone
  • know and use alternatives to cope with stress and anger
  • Advocate for a violence-free lifestyle
  • Recognize that even though we are incarcerated, we can help those in need
  • Know and understand the importance of caring for humanity

“ROFW is a self-help organization. The inmate group members meet once weekly. They have bylaws and elect their own officers to run the group. There is a Blue Book curriculum that the inmates have developed over the years. One of the group members facilitates the meeting discussion each week around the units in the Blue Book. The units provide information about topics important to inmates and ask questions that generate discussion. The topics in the Blue Book are: addiction, anger, child abuse, communication, conflict, domestic violence, respect, self, and spirituality. Over the years we have seen how active involvement in ROFW reduces the likelihood that people coming out of prison will re-offend and return to prison,” he said.

The organizational goal is to give incarcerated men and women a better opportunity for a second chance upon release, thereby reducing crime and making our communities safer, Thompson said.

The goals of ROFW groups are:

  • To learn about child abuse, spouse abuse, sexual assault, elder abuse, and other forms of violence present in our world today
  • To take what we learn and educate others about the violence that exists in society
  • To learn alternatives to cope with stress, anger, and rage and learn the resources available to us
  • To communicate to others the alternatives to vi0lence and resources available to them
  • To learn valuable communication skills necessary for emotional well being

“After SuEllen Fried, our cofounder and president emeritus, heard a reading of Nathan Jackson's play "When I Come to Die" a year ago we decided to buy out the Copaken Stage for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre performance of that play on March 13. We plan to use that as a benefit performance for our organization. The play is about a death row inmate who gets a second chance at life after he survives his execution. The second chance nature of that story fits up against the second chance goal or our organization,” Thompson said.

Coming out of prison leaves the released person at a loss, Rhodes said.

“As a society we incarcerate criminals, but after incarceration the work toward a solution stops. Meaning when they come out of prison what is available to assist their re-entry back into society? I understand that part of the problem, and I have an extremely daunting task ahead of me with regard to successfully establishing this corporation and getting society to embrace it,” Rhodes said.

“I realize the difficulty of coming out of prison and re-entering into society. I was fortunate to have a support system, because otherwise at this point I would probably be in a very difficult spot. I live in an Oxford House (sober living house), I have two mentors, one very proactive and the other one very hands on. It took me seven months to find employment, submitting at least 10-15applications a day. My first job was KFC, and since that time I have obtained employment with another company named Steel and Pipe Supply. I work as a janitor. It is employment that I need, and I am thankful to have it,” Rhodes said. “However, my dreams are far reaching and I am determined to make them a reality. It has been a pleasure to share these thoughts with whoever may read them. Good luck with your lives and God bless you,” Rhodes concluded.

Persons interested in the ROFW program may volunteer by contacting the organization. Even though the program originated in Kansas, it has spread to North Carolina at the current time and is growing there. Other states may follow if they wish to address the problems that RFOW helps to solve. For the official website of ROFW, go to : www.rofw.org. Further questions may be sent to rthompson67@kc.rr.com.