Program helps released inmates make a new start
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Armed with a $35,000 grant awarded last year by the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph is helping released inmates make the transition to life outside of prison.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Sister of St. Joseph Barbara Jennings, pastoral administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Easton, speaks with Kathleen Kennedy, coordinator of restorative justice for Catholic Charities, at a Prison Ministry Day in Kansas City Nov. 16.
At the same time, a project is moving forward to shift the criminal justice system away from a punishment-only model toward healing the harm caused by crime, said Kathleen Kennedy, director of Charities' restorative justice project. Kennedy works out of Catholic Charities offices in both Kansas City and St. Joseph.
Speaking at a Prison Ministry Day in Kansas City, Kennedy said opportunities abound for volunteers to get involved. That involvement, she said, could be as simple as donating new socks and work clothes to an inmate released from prison with little but the clothes on his back, to visits with inmates inside prison walls.
Particularly needed, she said, are victims of crime willing to share with inmates the harm that crime causes.
The CCHD grant helps fund "restorative justice" classes that Kennedy teaches in prisons located throughout the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. That grant was funded through the annual Catholic Campaign for Human Development national collection which will be conducted in parishes this year on Nov. 22-23.
Born out of the victims' rights movement, restorative justice seeks to bring crime victims and offenders together in a process that seeks healing for both, Kennedy said.
The present system of locking up offenders and throwing away the key isn't working, she said, noting that Missouri now spends $540 million a year to maintain its prison system.
"People need to know that in Missouri, we have reached 30,000-plus people who are behind bars," Kennedy said. "Even with all the new prison construction now underway, the system will be maxed out by the summer of 2005. We cannot afford to continue to incarcerate people at this rate."
Kennedy said that violent criminals "need to be separated from the rest of us."
"But we need to look at all the people who are behind bars for nonviolent crimes," she said. "You lock them up in a violent environment, and they come out in worse shape."
One alternative now working in Buchanan County is a reparations board that puts offenders face-to-face with the victims of their crimes in order to repair the damage their crime caused.
"We had a young man who had been drinking and ran his car into a fence," Kennedy said "The judge sentenced him to the reparations board. That offender then sat down with those victims, an elderly couple, and they told him firsthand the harm he caused them."
The young man then agreed to fix the fence as part of his terms of probation and avoided a jail sentence, she said. Not only that, but "the elderly gentleman taught him the skills to repair that fence," Kennedy said.
The restorative justice approach sees crime "as something that happens to real-life people," Kennedy said.
"Whenever it is possible, you have to bring together the victim, the criminal and the community to heal that harm," she said.
"I have seen big, grown men with tears in their eyes after a victim has told them what crime has done to them," Kennedy said.
Unfortunately, Kennedy said, society doesn't want to give offenders the healing that making amends can sometimes provide, or even to give them another chance at a dignified life after prison.
"Society wants to discount these folks and say they are not as human as you or I, and don't have the same needs," Kennedy said. "But when you go into prison ministry, you get a different picture."
Sometimes, she said, knowing that a person on the outside cares about them can make a difference in an offender's life, she said.
Catholic Charities sponsors a letter-writing project that links inmates with caring individuals without exchanging names or addresses.
"All the letters come and go from the Catholic Charities office," Kennedy said. "We use first names only to maintain anonymity."
Letter-writers, she said, are discouraged from visiting inmates in person.
"It is a letter-writing project, not a visitation project, and it is important in and of itself," she said.
Catholic Charities is also coordinating a "Welcome Backpack" project which provides inmates with work clothes, socks and underwear inside a backpack as they are released from custody.
"A lot of them come out of prison with the clothes they are wearing, no identification, and no backup support," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said that offenders will contact her office just before they are released to ask where they can get help in the world outside of prisons.
"They want a fresh start, and they often don't want to return to the community they came from because of the negative influences there," she said. "But they don't have a clue where to turn."
By acting as a clearinghouse, Catholic Charities can point ex-offenders to resources around the state, she said.
"The people who look us up are the ones who are trying to do something positive or they wouldn't waste their time contacting us," Kennedy said.