LANSING, Kan. - When it comes to being positive about life, inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility face a struggle.
Damien Windsor, an inmate from Wichita, grew up in a culture of poverty, drugs and alcohol. He's serving a sentence for first degree murder and knows something has to change.
"It was important for me to break the cycle of that kind of culture," he said. "Whether you're in here or out there, you have to surround yourself with positivity."
That sense of positivity comes in part from SuEllen Fried and her organization Reaching Out From Within. She began visiting inmates in Lansing in 1977. About five years later, she and an inmate serving a life sentence began the program in an effort to stop the cycle of violence that led many there and will bring many of them back after their release.
This week, about a dozen inmates gathered to talk about role models -- maybe a friend, a father, or even a famous athlete -- something they may not have had when they were young.
Looking up to SuEllen isn't hard.
"Beautiful, beautiful person. An angel," inmate Brian Betts said.
"She's probably the nicest person besides my grandmother that I've ever met in my life," he said.
Fried is 81 and at a time in her life when most people are taking it easy. Inmates come to the weekly meetings voluntarily to learn to live non-violently, confront the reason they're in prison and grow as people. They are welcome to visit for three weeks before committing to the program.
Once they're there, Fried said the change in their attitudes can come quickly. They spend most of their time discussing that week's topic. The classroom where they meet is a safe place, where they are free to be open and honest. Everything said in the room stays in the room. The freedom to speak from the heart is a welcome break from the harsh reality of prison life.
Fried, an expert on violence and child abuse, believes the inmates can change in such an environment.
"People can always change their lives and make other people's lives better," Windsor said. "It's a matter of choice and I think she's a catalyst for that belief."
The inmates in the program often end up there after trying other prison offerings. What keeps them coming is a dedication to the program's emphasis on empowering the men and women to look at themselves, to take responsibility for their crimes and to confront the issues that they need to deal with in order to leave here as the person they want to be.
"They've prepared themselves to face incredible challenges in ways that will work for them instead of defeat them," Fried said.
The inmates in the program, both men and women at several prisons across Kansas appreciate the lessons.
"It helps you know that there is hope" Betts said. "It is goodness. It's not all bad."
Fried also inspires them to share that positive attitude outside the classroom. Some make it a priority to deliberately spread the positive vibes.
"I think that's the most important thing that we can do is contribute to other people's lives," Windsor said. "I know that's been the most important thing for me."
Fried insists she isn't the group's leader.
"They don't come to me," she said. "They come to each other. I'm just a witness to the personal transformations."
The program also works after prison. Fewer than 10 percent of the participants end up back behind bars compared with about a third statewide.
You can learn more about Reaching Out From Within at www.rofw.org .