In a stripped-down room at Lansing Correctional Facility, 80-year-old SuEllen Fried sits in a chair in between two inmates. White plastic tables are arranged in a square, and about 20 prisoners gather around them for a recent night’s meeting.
A blue book sits on the table in front of each inmate as they begin with a mantra:
“We believe that no one has the right to hit anyone,” they recite. “We believe in using alternatives to cope with stress and anger. We believe in advocating a violence-free lifestyle. We believe that, even though we are incarcerated, we can help those in need. We believe in the importance of caring for humanity.”
The inmates move on to their positive thoughts, where each recites a quote or thought that he wishes to share with the group.
Deon, the group’s chairman, starts off.
“Respect is not a gift, you have to earn it,” he says. “With that I pass.”
“When you know better, you do better,” another adds. “With that I pass.”
“My positive thought is that Dr. SuEllen Fried is here,” another says, followed by a nod of heads and group agreement.
It’s now Fried’s turn, and the inmates listen as the woman of the hour adds her two cents.
“My positive thought is that if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right,” she says.
The men at the medium correctional facility come from all walks of life. While their white T-shirts and plain jeans paint them generic, their stories set them apart.
SuEllen Fried brings them together.
They are bound by Reaching Out from Within, an organization Fried co-founded 30 years ago that offers self-help for violent inmates who wish to change their behavior and reform their lives.
And they all are impacted by a woman who, though she lives an hour away in the suburban comfort of Prairie Village, is always close enough to care.
SuEllen Fried has spent the majority of her life curbing violence in adults and children alike. In addition to Reaching Out from Within, she started BullySafeUSA, a program designed to prevent and educate students about bullying at a young age.
Mayors, prominent community members, volunteers and former inmates recently gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Reaching Out from Within — and to honor the woman who spends countless hours making sure the men and women incarcerated in Kansas have a chance to learn from their mistakes.
The woman they honored remains active with her anti-violence organizations, is a co-author with her daughter of four anti-bullying books, and continues to be a prolific community volunteer.
Her awards and honors could fill a page themselves. She was President George H.W. Bush’s 900th Point of Light in 1993, was the Johnson Countian of the Year in 1993, and was one of the 100 Top Women of the Global World in 2012.
She has been on “Good Morning America,” “Today,” MSNBC and was featured in an A&E documentary called “Bullied to Death,” as an advocate against bullying.
She shows no signs of slowing down. She continues to fill her planner with events, fundraisers, workshops and engagements that leave little room for free time.
A former dancer, Fried walks and moves with grace. There’s a youthful light in her eyes and a bounce in her step that is contagious.
She is petite, with a bright smile that greets each person she meets. She is a hugger, one who suggests you drop your things and embrace in a specific way so that your hearts touch.
Above all, she is a difference maker.
“Awe was the first impression I had of this wonderful human being,” the now-deceased co-founder of Reaching Out from Within — an inmate named Greg — wrote in the foreword of the group’s blue book. “I was spellbound. Her words were filled with hope; they touched me deeply. To say SuEllen’s visit would impact my life is an understatement.”
Jason, a former inmate and Reaching Out from Within group leader, now a member of the board and volunteer, can describe Fried in one word.
“Dynamic,” Jason said. “The prisoners think she’s a saint, that she walks on water. They’re in awe of her.”
Reaching Out from Within was not Fried’s idea alone.
In 1978, inmate Terry McClain, the editor of an inmate-produced newsletter for the Kansas State Penitentiary Lifer’s Club, published a survey on his Lansing cellblock that correlated having been abused as a child and being incarcerated. Of the 200 inmates on the block, 180 participated in the survey; 80 percent of the lifers said they were abused as a child.
A co-founder of the Kansas Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse and president of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Fried’s name was on the mailing list. She was so taken by the information that she contacted McClain.
“He closed with these words, he said, ‘If you brutalize your child, don’t be surprised if he grows up to become a killer. If you allow your neighbor to brutalize his children, don’t wail and gnash your teeth when those children grow up and kill yours.’ I thought that was such a profound statement, I wrote to him and asked for permission to quote him in my child abuse speeches, and he invited me to come to the lifer’s club,” Fried said.
Fried attended a meeting and there she met Greg.
“He is responsible for who we are today,” Fried said.
At the time, Greg was in prison for killing his wife. After participating in the Lifer’s Club survey, he was eager to help Fried. While in prison, he helped make stuffed animals for a fundraiser for Fried’s Stop Violence group, which later evolved into Reaching Out from Within.
“I came back to Greg and I said, ‘Greg, what can we do for you?’ ” Fried said. “And he said, ‘There are no psychological services available here, and there’s a lot of us that would like to understand the roots of violence in our lives, so could you please find some people that would come here and talk to us?’ ”
Greg made a list of the subjects the inmates wanted counseling on: child abuse, spouse abuse, sexual abuse, addiction, anger management, conflict resolution, communication skills.
“I went to experts in the community, and every one of them agreed to go to the prison one at a time and give a workshop on that subject matter,” Fried said.
After attending the sessions, Greg started teaching a course based on the information he heard. When he transferred to another facility, which at the time housed men and women, he continued teaching the course. An inmate named Lisa Dant was attending the sessions and began typing the information up, which evolved into the blue books inmates bring to each meeting.
“This book is special,” Greg wrote in the foreword. “Not because of the way it is written. Not because of who wrote it. This book is special because of its contents and the message it conveys.”
Greg was released from prison in 1999 and died 11 years later. But the program continued and flourished, now with 16 groups in penitentiaries in Kansas. It is purely voluntary, so the inmates who participate are those who are motivated to change. The groups meet once a week for two hours and discuss a wide range of topics; some from the book, some from guest speakers and special presentations.
The goal is to allow inmates to look inside themselves, learn from their mistakes and grow into nonviolent community members upon their release. For members who attend between 20 and 40 meetings, the recidivism rate is 23 percent. Those who attend between 40 and 60 have a recidivism rate of 17 percent, and those who attend more than 60 meetings have a recidivism rate of 8 percent, Fried said. The prison recidivism rate across the country is between 50 and 67 percent.
At a time when the state is canceling prison education programs, counseling programs and work programs because of budget cuts, Reaching Out from Within is becoming a crucial tool for the prison system, said Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican who is chairwoman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.
Reaching Out from Within runs with the help of 29 volunteers, many who travel weekly to the prisons to attend meetings. There are nine members on the Reaching Out from Within board, four of which are former inmates.
“People ask what I do when I go to the prison, and I say I am a witness to personal transformations,” Fried said.
On one recent evening, the Reaching Out from Within meeting at Lansing Correctional Facility is a discussion on domestic violence, led by Audrey Cress, an education and prevention advocate for Safehome, Johnson County’s domestic violence shelter. It’s her third time presenting at the prison, and she makes her way to the chalkboard as some men grab a pen and paper while others turn to listen.
“What causes domestic violence?” she asks, white chalk in hand.
“Jealousy,” one inmate says.
“Stress,” another chimes in.
“Anger,” another says, as Cress writes each term on the board.
“What comes to mind when you think of domestic violence?” Cress asks.
The discussion flows freely and no topics are off limits. For two hours, the inmates are encouraged to offer their experiences and examine each other’s mistakes, no matter how painful or revealing they may be. The inmates agree on confidentiality.
For many of the men at Lansing, it is the only safe harbor they have ever had to discuss their feelings without fear or judgment.
Cress addresses each inmate’s questions as they raise their hands periodically. So many topics within domestic violence are discussed that the meeting fast reaches its time limit. Cress ends her presentation, and the inmates conclude the meeting with a final statement, called “The Optimist Creed.”
“Promise yourself,” they all say, “to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Promise yourself to talk health, happiness, and prosperity to everyone you meet. … Promise yourself to live in the faith that the whole world is on your side, so long as you are true to the best that is in you.”
Deon, the group’s chairman, is a soft-spoken man with an obvious leadership quality. He was incarcerated in 2004 and has been a member of Reaching Out from Within since 2006. In July, his fellow group members elected him as chairman.
“You learn something each time you come,” he said. “It forces you to take a deep look at yourself and teaches you how to become a better person.”
“It saved me,” Khalani Britt, a former inmate at the women’s prison in Topeka, said of the program. She was incarcerated in 2009 for aggravated battery and was released in September of this year.
“I thought it was going to be like any other program, but it was different because of its openness,” said Andre Carson, a former inmate and Reaching Out from Within member. “One of the things that drew me to it was guys would talk about things that would never make it to the yard.”
When SuEllen’s daughter Paula was in college, Paula worked as a volunteer on the pediatric oncology unit at KU Medical Center each summer and met a young girl named Kimberly Weisel. She was 10 years old and had been diagnosed with leukemia three years before. She went into remission, but the cancer came back fiercely when she was 10.
“By the end of the summer, Paula and Kim both knew that Kim was not going to survive this time,” Fried said.
So Fried and her daughter invited Kim and her mother over for a final lunch. Paula was going back to college, and Kim was going into the fifth grade, and the two weren’t sure if they would ever see each other again.
They were laughing and chatting, and Paula asked Kim if she was excited to go back to school.
“I am counting the days. I cannot wait for school to start,” the girl said. “I want to see my friends.”
Paula asked if Kim had any concerns.
“Recess,” Kim said.
“Recess? Kim, with everything that you have to worry about, why is recess a problem?” SuEllen asked.
She explained that at recess, some of the kids thought it was funny to pull her wig off of her head. When she was standing there, in the middle of the playground with a bald head, the kids would form a circle around her and start pointing, and laughing, making fun of her for not having hair.
“I have never recovered from that conversation,” Fried said. “I have never been able to put out of my mind a 10-year-old little girl who was trying to figure out how she was going to die and let go of her life, and her biggest problem was kids making fun of her because she was bald because of cancer.”
Fried decided that something had to be done about kids and bullying.
She decided the best way to prevent bullying was to reach kids at a young age.
Since 2002, she has been visiting schools around the state of Kansas, educating elementary kids on what it means to bully and why the behavior needs to stop.
“From the very beginning, I am trying to capture them with the seriousness of what they’re doing to each other,” Fried said.
In a brightly lit classroom at Bluejacket-Flint Elementary in Shawnee, Fried stands in front of a group of kids in a bright pink blazer with her signature neon green button that reads “Power of Kindness.”
“Good morning!” she greets them enthusiastically. “I am so delighted to have this chance to learn from you about bullying.”
For an hour, Fried talks to the children about bullying. She asks them their opinions, offers information, and gathers some herself. She talks about the different forms of bullying, the causes of bullying and what it means to be a witness to bullying.
The last topic Fried discusses with the kids is empathy.
“Empathy is the capacity that each of us has to put ourselves in someone’s situation. To be in their skin, to imagine what it feels like to be going through what they’re going through.”
And whether it’s a prisoner, or a fifth-grader, SuEllen Fried is the definition of empathy. She not only puts herself in others’ shoes, but she continues to make an effort to impact the path those shoes are headed down.
BullySafeUSA has extended to its second state, Indiana.
Almost three years ago, Fried began a program called “Train the Trainer Institutes,” a separate anti-bullying effort where she will go into a school district and train school counselors, principals, and even a superintendent on the type of questions to ask and the manner in which to ask them. They watch Fried in a session, then teach their own sessions based on the information in the workshop.
She’s done the training sessions in the Blue Valley, Olathe and De Soto school districts, as well as districts outside of Johnson County.
The hallway outside a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in Overland Park was packed with people one night earlier this month.
The area buzzes with chatter, and a petite woman in a bright pink blazer bounces from group to group, hugging and greeting those she hasn’t seen yet with a renewed excitement.
SuEllen Fried is floating through the crowd like a social butterfly, her “Power of Kindness” button pinned, as usual, on the front of her blazer.
The 30th anniversary dinner for Reaching Out from Within is about to start as the people in the hallway file into the ballroom and find their tables. There are 27 tables in all, with about 10 people seated at each.
A stage is set up at the front of the room with four chairs, stands and microphones, which will later showcase actors who will act out a mock-meeting of Reaching Out from Within for guests who haven’t witnessed the group sessions firsthand.
Dinner is served as three former Reaching Out from Within members take a different stage. One is Lisa Dant, the inmate who typed the blue book 30 years ago. They tell the guests about their personal experiences; how the program helped them transform their lives from a prison cell to a future.
Board member Bernard Franklin takes the stage with a scrapbook in hand. He introduces and honors SuEllen Fried as she takes the stage to a standing ovation from wardens, mayors, former inmates and friends.
Two former inmates take out their cell phones to capture the moment, and it’s a moment worth capturing. In a room where people of privilege dine with former prisoners, Fried is the common denominator, the link that holds them all together.
Every five years, Fried holds a “non-funeral party,” a birthday celebration that includes friends and family and is more about networking and connecting those around her than it is about her.
“I have already informed my family, that under no circumstances when I die, do I want a lot of interesting people in different parts of my life to come to my funeral, walk in, sit at the funeral service, have the rabbi say some nice words about me and then leave,” she said. “I want all of these people to meet each other and to hear about the interesting things they’re doing.”
So Fried invites all of the people that would come to her funeral to come and connect.
“And I dance, because I was a dancer before I got married,” Fried said. “I believe that the dancer in me has affected so much of self and who I am.”
Fried has danced through her 80 years with a mission to help others, and she isn’t done yet.
To reach Melissa Schupmann, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.