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PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — At 87, SuEllen Fried could easily be playing bridge, quilting and hanging out with her grandchildren. She does love the grandkids, but she doesn’t sit still. She’s on the go, transforming lives behind bars. “It’s like my spiritual fix,” she said about the program she helped start 37 years ago, with the help of a lifer at the Kansas State Penitentiary (now the Lansing Correctional Facility). She got to know him and other inmates when she was asked to help produce a variety show and teach dancing. She studied dance and even performed professionally. “There is an angel and a beast in everyone of us,” SuEllen insists, explaining why she connected with the inmates and wanted to help them focus on the “angel” side of their lives. Her program, “Reaching Out From Within,” aims to help inmates change their focus from a criminal lifestyle, to positive ways they can live their lives. And if they get out, to stay out and avoid returning to prison. “They learn how to heal themselves and each other,” she said.
In group sessions, inmates openly discuss issues ranging from abuse, to domestic violence, to relationships. They are encouraged to attend the weekly meetings, be open and help each other grapple with these issues. Inmates involved, like 39-year-old Daniel Ramos of KCK, said it’s changed their way of thinking about themselves and their futures. At age 17, Ramos was involved in a drive-by shooting that left an innocent woman dead. Convicted of murder, he continued his gang violence ways behind bars. “I think I did a total of 8 years in long-term segregation over gang violence,” he said. But before his mom died of terminal cancer in 2009, his heart had begun to change and he promised her he would get out of prison and never return. He credits SuEllen’s “Reaching Out From Within” program as helping him reorder his life. “She’s always looking past what you’ve done and understanding the potential that really all human beings have inside of them,” Ramos said. He added he now understands the pain he caused his victim’s family all those years ago, and now he’s learning to live with the guilt and pain he carries with him over her death. “This program has given me a safe place to talk about the things that mean the most to me,” he said. “It’s really given me an opportunity to be honest with myself.” This spring, he’s scheduled to be released, and he doesn’t plan to come back. He has family to help him get started anew and a job. According to SuEllen, the odds of success are good. Inmates involved in her program for more than a year have an 8% recidivism rate. The state average according to the Kansas Department of Corrections is 34%. And SuEllen insists, she’s not changing lives. The inmates are changing their own lives — and hers, too. “What else could I do that would be more positive for me,” SuEllen said. “I am so blessed.”