By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY – Darnell Coffey was 15 when he came home to find his mother and sister bound and gagged by his sister’s boyfriend.
So he killed him.
Tried, convicted and sentenced as an adult, he stabbed another prison inmate who had tried to assault him 17 times.
“I was given a 20-piece for that,” he said of his 20-year sentence.
Coffey was paroled and released in 2006, after serving 15 years behind bars. He has worked steadily since his release, and has beaten the odds.
And he credits TurnAround, a program of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph since 1999, for keeping him out of prison.
TurnAround provides physical and practical support for recently released prison inmates – toothpaste, soap, a change of clothes, a lead on a job.
But Coffey said the most important thing he found at the program was the listening ear of director Rita Flynn.
“I told her things I haven’t told my own family,” Coffey said. “And she listened to me. That put peace inside of me. It made all the difference in the world.”
Coffey now volunteers as a mentor with TurnAround, providing the same one-on-one listening ear to recently released inmates who come by every week to TurnAround’s offices at 31st and Main in Kansas City.
And it works.
Statistics show that statewide, nearly two out of every five ex-prisoners will return to prison within three years.
For ex-prisoners who accept TurnAround’s mentoring and case management services, that number drops to one in 25.
Darryl Burton knows it works. He is now working full-time at TurnAround as one of four mentoring coordinators, recruiting and training new mentors and pen pals for inmates about to be released who are serious about getting the help to stay out.
Three years ago, Burton was released from prison. He served 24 years before he was finally exonerated on appeal for a murder he did not commit.
Hate and anger drove him for years. Finally, he turned his life over to Jesus and miracles began to happen.
The first miracle was his release. The second? “I am working for Catholic Charities, and I get to tell the world about Jesus,” Burton said at an April 30 workshop at St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, north, to recruit new mentors.
“It’s not a job for me. It’s a way of life,” Burton said.
Financed by a federal Department of Justice grant under the Second Chance Act of 2007, Turnaround’s mentoring program is seeking ordinary people who want to watch the extraordinary happen – a former prison inmate, an outcast to the rest of society, become a productive citizen.
And that happens every day in TurnAround, said mentoring coordinator Chuck Linton.
“If Jesus were in the middle of the Western Missouri Correctional Facility (in Cameron), do you think he would turn any of those people away?” Linton asked. “To see someone change before you, that is the best feeling in the world.”
Having someone to listen, just to make a person feel human again, is the difference, said coordinator Mary Ann Fry.
“Just listening means you are fully present for them,” she said. “You are giving of yourself in ways you don’t even realize.”
The program matches men-to-men and women-to-women carefully. Just before an inmate’s release, the mentor begins writing to them in prison to establish a relationship, with no exchange of any personal information, including and especially the mentor’s address.
After the inmate’s release, that confidentiality is maintained. The mentor agrees to make phone contact with the inmate, then meet face-to-face once every two weeks at a minimum in a public place, just to talk and listen.
But it’s important.
“That’s when they begin to feel hope because someone has taken the time to be with them,” Fry said.
Coffey said he worked hard to gain his parole. He eventually came to accept responsibility for his crimes, without blaming others. From there, he learned to forgive himself and move forward.
He earned his GED and took college courses in prison. When he was released, he had a job and an apartment lined up.
“A person has got to be willing to submit and to change,” Coffey said.
Coffey said he first saw Rita Flynn when she came to prison to talk to inmates. He just sat in the back of the room and listened.
“I took the long route to find where my spirit was,” he said.
He did nothing for a month after his release but work and stay in his Kansas City apartment. Then one day, remembering Flynn’s talk in prison, he came to TurnAround and discovered that Flynn really did care about him, and all the clients she serves.
“It’s those little things,” Coffey said. “It gave me hope.”
Like TurnAround’s motto, “Hope Changes Everything,” Coffey said.
“You can’t give up,” he said. “That’s what I try to tell everybody. Don’t quit. There are going to be obstacles, but never quit.”
As word of TurnAround’s success is spreading, inmates from all over the state are coming to Kansas City to find the program, Flynn said.
The statistics of what the case-load could become are staggering, she said. There are now more than 30,000 men and women incarcerated in Missouri’s prison system. More than 97 percent of them will eventually be released, with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few dollars in their pockets.
That makes the need for volunteer assistance critical, especially for people who will take the time to listen, Flynn said.
“If you just listen, you will find a whole new side to that person,” Coffey said. “I know my life is a whole lot different now.”
For more information about volunteer opportunities with TurnAround, contact Rita Flynn at (816) 561-1835; or e-mail Darryl Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org, Chuck Linton at email@example.com, Mary Ann Fry at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Deborah Neal at email@example.com; or visit www.catholiccharities-kcsj.org/services.