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Summit Designed To 'Humanize' The Formally Incarcerated

The National Prison Summit on Incarceration will be held in Wichita this weekend. Experts will discuss ways to help those behind bars, and their families. They will also talk about reducing recidivism to help the next generation stay out of jail.

Summit coordinator, David Wilkinson, says it’s been several years since the community has collectively come together to work with people that are incarcerated or transitioning out of prison.

A prison ministry group at St. Mark United Methodist Church started planning the event more than a year ago. But they have been working together for about 10 years, taking worship services and bible studies into prisons.

“We do after care for people as they transition to freedom, we provide resource, we minister to the family," says Wilkinson. "We’re involved in area ministries and we work all over the state. In fact, the team recently got an award from the governor for outstanding service to the prison community.”

The goal of the summit is to provide a training event where people will become empowered to make connections with people in prison and when they rejoin society.

Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Ray Roberts, is one of the featured speakers and will talk about the importance of volunteers. The Kansas Department of Corrections has a new program called Mentoring4Success.

“That matches people with a person in prison,” says Wilkinson. "And then they stay connected to them. So it provides, a sort of, a person with stability, some connection to the community during and after they’re released from prison.”

Other topics at the summit will include prevention and relapse awareness, incarcerated women and their families, and ministering to the family. There will also be a panel of people who have been in prison themselves, which will include Wilkinson.

“These people and myself, being a formally incarcerated person, will speak about our experience with being in prison and how members of the community coming in to meet with us and build a relationship with us, significantly impacted our lives,” says Wilkinson.

Most significantly, he says, the interest is in humanizing the formally incarcerated.

“In our society, in the media, there’s so much demonization of this population that we want to show we’re human and we’re not monsters," says Wilkinson. "We’re just people that have made mistakes, like we all have.”

While in prison, Wilkinson says he was appointed to run a law library.

“So by virtue of my experience there, I learned how to do legal work, document preparation," he says. "We did a lot for the residents of the prison. And then when I came out, I went to work for an attorney and worked for him for a couple of years, very, very much enjoyed it, and today, I operate Wilkinson Paralegal, where I do document preparations for people."

Wilkinson, who has two master’s degrees, says many people are unable to readily find work when they get out of prison.

“Absolutely, I am an exception,” says Wilkinson. "When you have graduate-level education, in terms of the percentage of the population in prison, it’s less than one percent. Most people are extremely socially, educationally, financially disadvantaged. They experience extreme barriers in their transition to freedom, so that’s one of the things the summit will address, is how we help people transition from prison to freedom.”

Rev. Dr. George Walters-Sleyon, founder and executive director of The Center for Church and Prison out of Boston, is a nationally known advocate and author on this issue. He will also be one of the keynote speakers giving a national prospective.

Wichita social worker Nancy Jackson will talk about helping the children of incarcerated families. Wilkinson says it’s an area that needs a lot of attention.

“It’s just saddens me so much because you know the children of incarcerated parents are much more likely to end up themselves in prison,” he says.

Wilkinson hopes churches or other organizations will help in this area. Big Brothers Big Sisters is an example of one organization doing exactly that. They have a program called Amachi, which focuses on youth dealing with shame and economic issues, the things that children of incarcerated adults experience.

Wilkinson says prison issues impact everyone because more than a thousand people return from prison to Sedgwick County every year. By helping them find jobs and become productive citizens, their risk of recidivism is reduced, which impacts both the person and their families.

“Well, if you just look at the nation as a whole, we have 2.3 million incarcerated human beings, citizens of our country. We represent 25 percent of the global prison population and while we are only 5 percent of the global population. We have an addiction to incarceration that is ineffective, that is destroying families that is destroying communities and in the state of Kansas, between county and state prisons, we have over 20 thousand human beings locked up.”

Wilkinson says most of these people are non-violent offenders who need some help transitioning their lives and incarceration is not effective in doing that. He sees the summit as a way to come together as a community and talk about the issue.

The National Prison Summit is scheduled for May 17 - 19 in Wichita at St. Mark United Methodist Church