Reaching Out from Within (ROFW) was established in 1982 in Kansas as an incarcerated-led program that empowers residents to transform themselves and heal each other.
ROFW is a national leader in rehabilitation programs for incarcerated individuals, and utilizes factual based concepts, welcoming volunteers and incarcerated men and women of all clerical and belief systems. ROFW’s rehabilitation program offers an opportunity for a “whole person” transformation for incarcerated individuals who want to make lasting changes in their behavior in order to become a role model for nonviolence, while still incarcerated, and becoming contributing members upon their return to our communities. The prison residents do this through leading their own meetings, helping each other transform, and healing each other.
Prisons are hard, unfriendly places. The main function is incarceration not rehabilitation. If residents hope to change their lives, they need the will and inner courage to do so against long odds.
Over forty years ago, a remarkable, self-help prison rehabilitation program was brought to the Kansas State Penitentiary by activist SuEllen Fried who persuaded officials to establish it inside the walls with the help of a Lifer’s Club member there. The idea just hit a chord. So many people had the hunger to understand the roots of violence in their lives – from child, spousal, sexual and substance abuse to issues with authority, anger management and other problems, the program became instantly accepted on the inside.
Soon, under the initiative, counseling and guidance of dedicated volunteers and caring professionals, the prison rehabilitation spread with weekly meetings becoming the norm – intensive sessions of frank soul-searching, shared intimacy and mutual respect. In the meetings, members have to participate openly by showing the courage to reveal details of their previously closed lives, question their destructive patterns and reflect on how they might change. The only thing brutal in the meetings is the honesty constantly on display.
The goal of the prison program is simple: to transform lives. To change deep down feelings of hopelessness, despair and disconnection to hope, affirmation, empathy and love. These are new emotions, totally foreign to most members until they’re able to confront and uncover them in themselves.
Over three decades, a curriculum has emerged, known affectionately as The Blue Book™. This constantly evolving document in conjunction with the weekly meeting format has given thousands the opportunity to find the courage within themselves to break the relentless chain of automatic violence haunting their lives. Rates of recidivism for program members show a huge drop.
The self-help groups now operate inside every Kansas Correctional Facility for men and women. The prison program has been transplanted to North Carolina and several other states are looking at it with interest.
"Each of us has an Angel and a Beast inside of us,” said SuEllen Fried, a great grandmother and nearly 40-year volunteer in Kansas correctional facilities. “Only when we acknowledge the Beast, can we embrace the Angel.”
As co-founder of Reaching Out From Within, SuEllen has been a constant source of inspiration: embracing inmates, giving them respect, and challenging them to have the courage to change through a carefully crafted reentry program. Her own inspiration for the work was her co-founder, the late Greg Musselman, who was serving a life sentence in Lansing when the two crossed paths in the early ‘80s as a result of SuEllen’s work on child abuse prevention.
“The inmates wanted to understand the roots of violence and how it had impacted them. They were brave enough to do the extraordinary work of personal transformation, guiding each other in a way that was raw, real and relevant,” SuEllen said. The group, known at that time as StopViolence, was so successful at the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals, that it spread at the grassroots level throughout the Kansas Department of Corrections as members were transferred from Lansing to other facilities. The therapy-based curriculum that was developed, known as the “Blue Book,” would serve as a basis for incarcerated members dealing with deeply rooted issues of violence and eventual healing through the program. “They would take the Blue Book to the new warden and ask to start a group, and because of its success at Lansing, the answer was always yes.”
A reentry program is essential because of the stigma a felony conviction carries on the outside. Reaching Out From Within has a network of alumni who continue to transform themselves, their community and work to mentor and support others during their transition process. The frustrations associated with reintegrating into life on the outside: getting a job, affordable transportation, a safe living environment, and even learning to drive and using a cell phone, can become overwhelming. The tools offered through the Blue Book, and the community of positive people who meet weekly to support each other, have proven to be effective ways to reduce recidivism in our communities and to encourage healthy relationships for our incarcerated population and our returning citizens.