Occasionally I get a letter from a state or federal prisoner suggesting a column idea. The letters typically share a common theme, namely: "I'm not guilty, get me out of here."
But a while back I received a letter from Edward R. Clark, inmate number 100675, from the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Moose Lake that was a first: He wanted to praise a prison program. Clark acknowledged having been imprisoned for a total of 38 years, which made him something of an expert on prison life. "I'm acutely aware of what works and what doesn't work," he wrote.
What works, he said, is a program called "The Power of People/Silent Cry," that began as a single talk between a mentor and offenders, which now has grown to four Minnesota prisons and reached more than 3,000 inmates.
I know, that touchy-feely title made me a bit skeptical, too, until I talked to some prison administrators and a couple of ex-cons who say it changed their lives.
The program "POP," was started by Shane Price, based on a book ("The Power of People: Four Kinds of People Who Can Change Your Life") by his wife, author and motivational speaker Verna Cornelia Price.
Shane Price's discussion so moved the inmates that they recruited others to the next one at the correctional facility in Faribault. Ruth Stadheim, educational director for the facility, saw an opportunity "to start something to help them with accountability."
"They look at what they've done, and then make a plan for where they need to go," Stadheim said. "Those who graduate have formed their own little community, and it's very positive. The results have been amazing."
Shane Price said the idea originally was geared toward issues of black men, but they quickly realized many inmate problems were universal. One of the common issues among inmates, for example, is low self-esteem.
"But we don't talk about feelings or self-esteem," said Cornelia Price. "We talk about personal power and destiny and vision. Our work is not coddling anything, it's totally exposing it."
"We don't focus on what you did," said Shane Price, "we focus on why you did it and what you could have done differently. They have to ask, 'Why did I become this person?' It's very intense, very laborious."
Cornelia Price said inmates are taught to identify people into four categories, those who add to or multiply our lives, and those who subtract and divide it. Offenders are taught critical thinking in order to examine their lives, something few of them have been forced to do in the correctional system or society.
The Prices formed the Power of People Leadership Institute. The program was expanded to 10 weeks, with a follow-up course. Now inmates who have left prison also gather weekly to discuss keeping their lives together on the outside, and the Prices and student teachers follow up with graduates as far away as Mexico and Ecuador via social media.
Cornelia Price's book was so popular it was translated into Spanish. They even offer housing for recently released offenders.
Among the moving success stories, Shane Price said, was the time leaders of an Islamic group and a white supremacist group joined POP, which permitted their members to join in. Both are out of prison and doing well, he said.
For skeptics of rehabilitation, Shane Price has this: "Most offenders are going to come back home. What condition do you want them to be in?"
Jon Vang is one of those offenders. He was convicted of aiding and abetting a second-degree murder. He's out now and optimistic.
"I feel confident and know more about myself," said Vang. He's attending weekly follow-up meetings and doing volunteer work in the community. He said the POP program "was very difficult. You have to take a hard look in the mirror. Before the program, I put on a mask and tried to be someone I wasn't because of what I saw on TV or in people around me. I tried to act hard."
"My family has welcomed me back," said Vang. "They love the new person that I am."
Donyale Paige is another graduate. He's out of prison and works as a carpenter for a large firm.
"The program had a direct effect on how I view myself and how I consider my actions," said Paige. "When I was younger I was starved for love and affection, so no matter how bad the person was I latched onto them," Paige said.
Regular Tuesday meetings with his POP group has replaced unhealthy relationships, he said.
"That group to me is a lifeline," said Paige. "It's something to keep me focused, to keep me on track."