When sign-up sheets went up recently at Stillwater prison for inmates to pack meals for hungry kids, the 50 volunteer slots were filled within five minutes. So officials increased the number of inmate volunteers allowed.
On Saturday, 131 of them assembled meal packets for an event led by the prison’s Restorative Justice Offender Council and Trinity Lutheran Church in Bayport.
“This is not just a way to pay back; it’s a way to make amends,” said Robert Peterson, 58, an inmate volunteer who is on the council. “Some of the victims have died, and some we can’t talk to. This is a way to pay it forward. “Since we can’t make direct amends, then the best thing we can do is to live a life that is good and honorable.”
Peterson, who is scheduled for release next year, entered prison 38 years ago when he was 20 and convicted of kidnapping and carjacking in California after moving from Lake Elmo. He spoke while sealing bags of dried food.
Helping Peterson seal the 13.8-ounce bags in the assembly production was a 35-year-old inmate from St. Paul. At 17, that inmate killed two people and went to prison for two life sentences plus 25 years for first-degree murder convictions. Prison officials asked that his name not be used.
“Of course, I thought about giving back,” he said. “Given our situation, opportunities like this are too far in between.”
For many, Saturday’s volunteer work stirred sad memories.
“A lot of us come from hard backgrounds,” the 35-year-old said. “My mom had to go to a food shelf to get food here and in St. Cloud.” And lots of inmates can recall, as men, finding “themselves sitting out in [food] lines in the cold,” he said.
Lt. Sherlinda Wheeler, coordinator of the prison’s restorative justice efforts, said 117 inmates signed up from the general population, and 14 came from the Restorative Justice Offender Council. They’re “happy to be out here working,” she said.
The prison’s restorative justice efforts include classes on victim impact, writing apology letters, community service projects, restitution and victim-offender dialogue sessions — though such communications can be rare.
Twice a year, the inmates in the restorative justice program throw fundraisers, directing money to programs for victims, including battered women, among other efforts toward good.
After packing Saturday, they gathered around Tom Thiets, director of Trinity’s missions, who told them he hopes they can get together in the future to pack more meals for hungry kids. The inmates cheered when they heard they’d packed up 15,336 meals in less than two hours.
“I’m thrilled,” said Warden Michelle Smith as the inmates headed back to their cell blocks. “It provides gratitude and satisfaction in knowing the benefits of their work today, and who will benefit,” she said.
“It’s a way to put some purpose in our daily lives back here,” said Peterson, who talked to Thiets about helping to pack meals for hungry kids once he’s out of prison.
“That would be great,” Peterson said. “You don’t do stuff just to get out. You do stuff to change your life. You want to get out and live a better life.”