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Inmates run project to help needy children

Eddyville, Ky.

Sociologists, ministers, politicians and analysts of all descriptions might sit for hours debating a simple question: “What is the cause of crime?” A group of authorities in western Kentucky answer that question in a single word: poverty.

The panel of experts in western Kentucky says, “Poverty is the worst thing that can happen to a child.” These experts have a wide variety of backgrounds. They come from different places, have varying degrees of education and a broad range of talents and abilities. They also have one thing in common.

Each is an inmate at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, the state’s only maximum-security facility. Each of these men could be called a career criminal, someone who had a difficult time adjusting to medium- or minimum-security facilities. Inmates are encouraged to work, but it is not mandatory. Many do because it means more time out of the cell, which measures about the width of a man’s outstretched arms. Inmates are allowed to have television (local stations and the Discovery channel only) or radio in their cells, but these are luxuries that are debited from “state pay,” the compensation men receive for their work. Most prison jobs pay about 75 cents per day, totaling about $15 per month.

“Violence, drugs -- you name it, I was in it,” said inmate Leo Spurling. “I was as bad as a human being could get. I gave up on life because I didn’t have hope. I thought my life was a waste because I didn’t realize my potential.”

Spurling said he realized one day that despite his incarceration, his life could still have purpose and meaning.

The same realization came to William Woolums, known as “Snake” to his friends “on the yard.” Both had been in prisons out of state, but when they came back to Eddyville they realized while talking together that they still could salvage what they saw as wasted lives, wasted potential. They asked Sr. Christine Beckett, a volunteer chaplain at the prison, to sponsor their efforts. The Children’s Fund Project, run totally by inmates, was born in July 2002.

The group drafted a constitution and bylaws, with inmates elected officers and Beckett “community sponsor/spokesperson and spiritual adviser.”

Because the executive committee and others involved believe that the root cause of crime is poverty, the purpose of the Children’s Fund Project is to raise money to contribute to children living in poverty and youth at risk. Since its inception, the project has made donations to several western Kentucky projects that aid children in need in order to divert them from lives of crime.

Spurling and executive director Woolums knew from the start that they would need a little creativity and a lot of hard work to make the kind of impact they wanted to make. The committee has identified three ways to raise money for the kids: making and selling arts and crafts, collecting voluntary donations from individual inmates, and retrieving aluminum cans from the garbage collected in the penitentiary.

Every morning men gather on the prison’s “slop dock” to sift through the garbage that has been collected the day before. It’s difficult to imagine how much garbage must be collected from over 800 men every day, but each aluminum soft drink can is extracted, stomped flat, packed into a plastic bag and carried to a holding area. There are about 30 cans to a pound, and the project receives 38 to 40 cents for each pound of aluminum. A recent month’s work yielded about $200, which translates to 15,000 cans-worth of sorting and stomping.

“One of the guys walked by and said, ‘That’s got to be humiliating,’ ” Spurling recalls. “I said, ‘Why? We’re doing it for the kids, man. How can that be humiliating?’ ”

There’s a ministry of witness that occurs on that slop dock every day, according to inmate Thomas Lantry. “I’m motivated by these guys,” he says of Spurling and Woolums. “I asked them what they were doing, stomping cans, and they told me it was for kids. Working with them helps me stay out of trouble, and it helps kids -- that’s the main thing.”

Lantry said the positive feedback from “Sister Chris” (as the inmates call Beckett), the pictures of the kids they’ve helped and thank you letters help keep them motivated. He hopes this will provide additional incentive for other inmates to become involved as well.

Inmates who have creative skills have contributed to the project by making items that Beckett and others she knows sell at churches and craft fairs.

Tracy Smallwood, who played football at Leslie County High School in Kentucky, has crafted model trucks and cars from corndog sticks, glue, paint and nail clippers. He said he hopes to complete a ’57 Chevy that will bring a good price “to help the kids.”

“People don’t know about the good that people do in prison,” Smallwood said. “There are people in prison that belong in prison, but there are people doing good. I broke the law, and I’m paying for it, and I’ll get out, if the Lord is willing.” In the meantime, Smallwood keeps busy, driven by the ideal of helping poor kids steer clear of a life of crime.

The bylaws of the Children’s Fund Project stipulate that members participate in meetings once a month and “are expected to develop and carry on projects which are educational and community-service oriented to help all needy children.”

The bylaws also require that 100 percent of the money raised “shall go directly to benefit underprivileged children who are provided assistance from the Children’s Fund Project.” That stipulation requires that men who fashion arts and crafts projects, for example, must pay for their own materials and that no project money may be spent to haul cans to the nearby recycling center. But the inmates get a helping hand from prison guards, who make their own contribution to the project by using personal time to make the needed trips to the recycling center.

Anyone within the prison community is welcome to participate in the Children’s Fund Project. The simple act of discarding a soda can contributes to the fund, Spurling said. Nearly 100 men, including several of the 36 on Death Row, have contributions debited from their state pay.

Through donations, sale of arts and crafts and “can stomping,” the Children’s Fund Project contributed close to $4,000 this Christmas to such charities as Sanctuary House in Hopkinsville, Ky.; Feed a Kid in Guthrie, Ky., and to two young cancer patients.

“These men don’t want any credit for what they’re doing,” said Beckett. “I’ve heard them say, ‘If I can keep one person from coming here, it’s worth it.’ I have great admiration for these guys.”

“Knowing what you can accomplish, it doesn’t get no better than that,” Spurling said at a recent project meeting.

Margaret Gabriel is a free-lance writer in Lexington, Ky.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002