Kansas City Star. November 27, 2023.
Editorial: ‘I’m never going back’: Meet some former Kansas inmates who transformed themselves
We spend a lot of time focusing on what still needs correcting, because without awareness — and usually, sustained pressure — change is not even possible. But in this season in between the days we set aside for giving thanks and for making new resolutions to do better, we also wanted to recognize the transformation that has already happened in the lives of some former Kansas prison inmates.
At a recent luncheon for Reaching Out From Within, a Kansas-based, inmate-led program co-founded in 1982 by community activist SuEllen Fried and the late Greg Musselman, who was serving a life sentence in Lansing when they met, 10 alumni of the program spoke about what they’d learned, how they’d learned it, and where they are today. Here are a few excerpts:
Marc Showalter served two stints in prison, the last time for 16 1/2 years. Now he’s been out for five-and-a-half years, and talked about summoning the courage to tell an employer about his history. He could do that, he said, because he’s not that person any more. “I put in effort,” and like other alums can say, “look where I came from! Before I got out, I set goals, and have achieved all but one of them.”
No, he’s not telling what that one is, but the list of those he’s already made good on includes “a great job and a great group of friends. I’m thankful for that, and thankful I will not be in prison any more; I’m never going back.”
Deon Dean said that when he first started going to ROFW meetings while inside, even he wondered “how can people change” just by “listening to a bunch of troubled people.”
But then, “you start listening to the stories. Everybody wants to change and nobody knows how.” He did change, though, by learning to “express what I’m feeling.” At first, “you feel like if you let it out, somebody’s going to judge you,” but then they don’t, “and you start feeling valuable” by helping others help themselves. And vice versa.
Since his release five years ago, “I can walk with my chest up now.” He bought his first house, and with the birth of his son has a second chance at being a father. “I messed up with my daughter and didn’t get to raise her.” He can’t go back and change that, as much as he’d like to, but as he now sees it, “my life is a work of art. It’s not done, and may not look right to everybody, but when it’s done, it’s going to be a masterpiece.”
Jeremiah Parks, who came to the lunch from Michigan, along with his family, thanked all the Reaching Out From Within volunteers whose presence at their meetings while incarcerated “make us feel normal. Human.” What he’s learned, he said, is that change happens when you decide, “I’m better than this,” and “let go of the mask. Just do a little better than the day before.”
Madeline Brooks has done a bunch of different jobs in the six-and-a-half years since her release: “I got my CPT, went to work in warehouses, started driving trucks,” and after her son with special needs was born, “started my own cleaning business.” She’s studying to become an aesthetician, and still sees members of her Reaching Out From Within support group. “They’re like my family now.”
Jacob Waldron began by saying, “I went to prison for selling drugs, not my proudest moment in life.” But he does take pride in the fact that since then, he’s “just tried to live an earnest life, and become a real man. I settled down, calmed down and just went and got a job. … Society is really crazy, and I try to evade issues and toxicity.”
Kohler Jeffries, who served “30 years straight,” said that the volunteers who attended meetings with him made him start to look at himself differently. “It makes us feel human to have people come in and not be afraid to sit next to us.” Like the others, though, he’s the one who changed his own life. Since his release, he’s started his own electrical company. “Your voting was made a lot smoother,” he said, “because I wired the new building” of the Jackson County Election Office. “And I can’t even vote.”