Kansas City Photographer Puts A Face To Kansas Prison Self-Help Program

Oct 15, 2015

The lives of inmates in prisons across Kansas is a world away from the aesthetics of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kansas City photographer Nick Vedros is bringing those worlds together with his Faces of Change photo essay — inspired by a unique self-help program in Kansas prisons. The exhibition is set to open at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art next month.

Though the prison program has been around for more than 30 years, Vedros hopes to give it "a shot in the arm" and spread it to prisons across the country.

The story of the Blue Book and the prison grandma

Reaching Out From Within is a self-help program developed by and for prisoners.

Its story goes back to 1978, when a member of the "Lifer’s Club" in the Kansas State Penitentiary conducted a survey on his cell block which found a connection between having been abused as a child and being incarcerated. The Lifer's Club is group of inmates serving extremely long or life sentences.

The survey caught the attention of SuEllen Fried, a child abuse prevention advocate, who later visited a meeting of the Lifer’s Club. Inmates expressed a desire to talk with each other about their early experiences, and thus the program began.

Now, it has a 19- unit curriculum, referred to as the Blue Book, which presents information and poses questions to stimulate Socratic- style discussions between inmates. Fried is the chairman.

“It’s magical, it’s a phenomenon,” Fried told Up to Date's Steve Kraske. “It’s self selective — people are not assigned to come to this program.”

These days, inmates call Fried the prison grandma. She has been attending meetings for decades.

“I think they see me as this kind of figure, someone who loves them unconditionally,” she said. “I don't want to know their crimes, I only want to know who they are now and what they’re working to change ... to become the person that they deserve to be."

Changing perspectives on inmates and prisons

It only took one meeting to change Vedros’ perspective on inmates.

“I thought, ‘My gosh, every single quality that they seem to possess are the ones that my good friends possess,’” he said.

That meeting inspired him put a face to the program and change people’s conceptions of prison and inmates. Through a series of black and white portraits, Vedros aims to show the good qualities he observed in the prisoners.

“I felt that if I became involved and we could spread this across more prisons in America, that it would make the world a better place,” Vedros said.

Inmates who have participated in the program have fared better than others. According to a 2005 study by the National Institute of Justice, 67.8 percent of released prisoners nationwide were re-arrested within three years of being released.

“Our recidivism rate is astonishing,” Fried said . “If you attend between 20 and 40 meetings the recidivism rate is 23 percent. 40 to 60, it drops to 17. If you attend 60 or more meetings it drops to 8 percent. And this program does not cost the Kansas Department of Corrections a penny.”

"Reaching Out From Within" has spread to a few prisons outside of Kansas, but Fried and Vedros hope that the exhibition at the Kemper will enable them to bring the program to more than 100 other prisons who have inquired from 27 states.

'Faces of Change: Photographs by Nick Vedros' showcases inmates of the Kansas Reaching Out From Within groups. The exhibition opens Nov. 20 and continues through February 7 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Lisa Rodriguez is the associate producer for KCUR's Up To Date. Find her on Twitter @larodrig.