Why was a service project sending cards from students to inmates cancelled?

By Rachel Lyons / Staff Writer

Prisoners, inmates, whatever you call them, are people just like any of us.

According to a Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC) report from Feb. 10, 1,862 out of a total of 9,924 people in the system call Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF) home. All 1,862 residents of HCF are male, and the population size is third only to El Dorado Correctional Facility and Lansing Correctional Facility, helping to house the majority of the 9,017 men in the KDOC.

In this case, the men at HCF aren’t the problem. Today, they have fallen victim to stereotyping once again.

On Jan. 10, Newton Unified School District, USD 373, issued a public statement calling off a planned service project between Chisholm Middle School students and Newton-based Offender Victim Ministries, in favor of a similar project in conjunction with Newton-area nursing homes. What was the planned service project? The planned project had students writing encouraging notes to those serving time over Valentine’s Day at HCF.

Why was the service project canceled? According to KWCH, Wichita’s CBS affiliate, reporter Braxton Jones, parents claim that instructions for the project ask for the inclusion of a name and location. Conflicting with what Offender Victim Ministries (OVM), the organization the project was in conjunction with, says was necessary for the notes.

I’m glad that USD 373 changed directions quickly and put an end to the controversy, but the debate on social media is more significant than a few angry parents. I have seen both sides, the parents that do not send their children to USD 373 and those who do. I’m concerned that those making these kinds of statements don’t understand the intentions of the project or what OVM does.

According to the OVM website, the group began as Inter-Faith Offender Concerns Committee in 1973. Since then, OVM has pursued a mission of “provide services to reconcile and transform relationships of those impacted by conflict, trauma, crime, and incarceration in our local communities.”

OVM pursues this mission through the use of Restorative Justice. The Restorative Justice philosophy used by OVM, according to Prison Fellowship International’s Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, is three big ideas – repair, encounter, and transformation. These principles aren’t strangers to classroom settings either. In roughly the past five years, Restorative Justice in the classroom has grown as a way to promote community within the school.

I understand that, with the clarified context given by USD 373, the project would have been a way to bring positivity, hope, and potentially a reason to change for the inmates at HCF. I do also applaud USD 373 for taking action to stop a problem before it gets out of hand. Outraged parents don’t often see the real people beyond the shade of red in their eyes. They forget that regardless of a charge, being violent or simply drug-related, or the person is a first-time or repeat offender, they are people, not stereotypes.

I understand that parents are concerned about their child corresponding with those at HCF because they are strangers, but what about the internet? We allow children roughly the same age, or younger than those at CMS to be on Social Media.

My interpretation of Kansas Administrative Regulation (KAR) 44-12-601 is that all inmate mail must include the sender’s name and standard mailing address and the inmate’s full name, KDOC number, name of the facility located at, and usual mailing address. Although all inmate mail must be read, there is not a single item in KAR 44-12-601 that says the internal contents must contain a name or identifying mark. Who is to stop OVM from mailing these notes under their name and mailing address?

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