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Compassion is Free

Making a difference for those affected by our flawed system of mass incarceration doesn’t always mean a lifetime devotion to prison reform. A veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, Ellie Bly Sutter ’66 moved to Lexington, Ky., in retirement to be near her grandchildren. Since 2009, she has volunteered one day each week at her local county jail, teaching a course on debate and public speaking.


What led you to your work in Lexington, Ky.’s Fayette County Detention Center?

Around 2009, I had a friend who was visiting prisoners and said there was a great need for people to come in. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I could do, but I started by shadowing some people who were going into the prison as Christian missionaries, teaching Bible subjects and so on. That was not something that I’m qualified to do. Then, I became acquainted with a man who was running a program called Life Possibilities, a pilot program to get a small group of 10 men to live together in one unit and voluntarily sign up for a program of very rigorous discipline, hour to hour. The goals were to get them used to the habit of knowing what you’re going to be doing every hour of the day, to make and follow through on commitments, and to operate in a group that keeps one another honest and gives support and feedback.

Some of the activities that they were engaged in were physical exercise, reading, Bible study, and a meeting every day in which they would discuss whatever interpersonal issues had arisen in the group: who cleans the bathroom, who’s starting fights with whom, anything. Every day, they had to take leadership of one activity and to meet a new person. With this man who was the leader of the program, they were going through a series of 12 lessons that involved a lot of self-examination of their past, reconciliation with anyone they’d ever offended, and making very concrete plans for the future after they got out. When they finished the 12 lessons, they would graduate from the program. The more senior men in the program would mentor new ones coming in. When a new person came into the program, there would be a trial period of two weeks, and then the other group members would vote whether to allow him to stay in the program.

As part of the program, they had a class every morning. And every day of the week, it was a different teacher. I thought about what I might be able to offer as a teacher. For a while I was just shadowing the leader of the program and listening in on his sessions. Then, I invented a course for the men, which I have been teaching on Tuesday mornings ever since, based on the skills that I needed in my own work and life. It’s designed to build their self-confidence and their ability to advocate for themselves, whether it’s with a judge, or with a prospective employer, or in a work situation. A lot of men who come into these situations in jail are very beaten down, ashamed of themselves. They mumble, they look down, they’re afraid of making waves. What they need to be able to do is look you in the eye with confidence and ask for what they want and need.

So, the method that I use in this class is, every week a different man gives a speech. Speeches are usually from about 5 to 15 minutes long on any subject they want. For me, it’s been an eye-opener—I hadn’t spent a lot of time with ordinary men from a rural area, and so I’ve learned a lot about fishing, hunting, cooking, basketball, movie stars, cars, special sneakers, plumbing, how to field-strip a deer, how to change out a water heater, how to put on a new roof, how to lay a concrete driveway—things like that. If they want some research from the internet, I bring them some research materials, because they don’t have computer access in there.

During a speech, the other men have to take notes, and the following week, they have to give me a very short essay summarizing the main points and one will deliver an oral summary. I also have reading exercises for them, where I print out an excerpt from a famous speech. I break it into short phrases, and the men have to practice looking down at one phrase and then looking at the audience while they read it out loud, look down quickly, read the next phrase out loud. Sort of the way a president will give a speech from a teleprompter. The idea is—even if you have a text—learning to keep your head up and look at your audience. 

The third thing we do in the class is formal debates. We pick a topic and I give them some materials the week before so they can study the arguments. Then we divide into a “yes” side and a “no” side. Before the debate starts, you vote in a secret ballot which side you’re on. Then we debate: the “yes” side gets three minutes, the “no” side gets three minutes, the “yes” side gets a one-minute rebuttal, the “no” side gets a one-minute rebuttal, the “yes” side has a one-minute conclusion, and the “no” side has a one-minute conclusion. Afterward, we vote again by secret ballot and the winner is whoever has managed to change somebody’s mind. The debates are very lively—I encourage them not to take it too seriously, I just tell them it’s mental combat, just think up any argument you can. So there’s quite a lot of humor, and they seem to enjoy that. 

We start and end every class with a prayer. After class, if they have any private consultations they want to have with us—I have a co-teacher now; I started out on my own, but then I found a co-teacher to do it with me—they can talk to us privately about their issues.

Tell me more about where you are and the people you’re working with.

I’m in the city of Lexington, Ky., which is merged with Fayette County, which surrounds Lexington. The jail where I work is the local Fayette County Detention Center. Most of the guys at this place are people who are awaiting trial. A lot of them have not had their hearing or trial yet. If they’ve had their trial, they’re going to be there for a very short time before they’re shipped someplace else. It’s a pretty transient population.

It’s a mix of people. The age range, I would say, is from late teens into the 60s. None of the men in my classes are violent criminals. Most of them are there either for drug-related offenses, parole violations, writing bad checks—non-violent offenses of that nature. Some of them, if they’re found guilty, will then be shipped off to a state or federal prison to serve out their sentences. Some of them are let go on probation, some of them are just acquitted or released. 

It’s a very wide variation of education levels. We had a guy in there who was a lawyer. We had a guy who was dyslexic and couldn’t read, and actually the other men in the class taught him how. It was very inspiring. When we had a Christmas service, he read one of the passages. Everybody was very proud of him.

What do you see as the biggest needs for incarcerated people in your neck of the woods?

Some of them have a family support system they can go back to, but a lot of them are estranged from their families who are upset with them. Some have friends on the outside and a lot of those friends are involved in the kind of activities that got them in jail, so if they go back to those friends, they’re going to be very tempted to go back to what got them in jail. And we do see some of them coming back to jail. And some of them really want to make a fresh start, but they have no resources, no family, no friends.

The greatest need that I see is for jails and prisons to better prepare people for release. I’ve been told that Indiana has a program of a six-month residential facility, where the men have a free place to stay for six months, and they get help finding a job. If they don’t have an ID card or a driver’s license, they get help obtaining them. Ideally, they’re able to get a job and are living rent-free, building up savings, so that when they finally get out, they can get an apartment and get themselves started in life. That’s a very good model for a re-entry program. What we have here in Lexington is a number of nonprofit organizations and churches, and some halfway houses. For most halfway houses, the men would have to pay to be there, so they would need family resources, but some of them, the state will pay. But for people who have no money, basically they go to the homeless shelter, where you have to be in line at 6 p.m. to get a bed and they throw you out the next morning. 

I had one acquaintance, a former student of mine, who felt very lucky to get a job at a restaurant as a dishwasher, but he didn’t get out until 11 p.m., and he had no place to sleep, so he found himself in the winter sleeping underneath stairways in the bus station. There are some churches that hand out free meals, but they’re in different parts of town, and for men that don’t have a car or money for transportation, to get from one part of town to another to get these free handouts is not easy. It’s just a challenge, being on the outside with no money, no job, no transportation, no place to live, no food.

In Kentucky, if you don’t have a state ID, there are a lot of firms that can’t hire you, because the laws on “illegal immigrants” have become so draconian. I knew one man who, for various reasons I won’t go into, didn’t have a state ID and was having trouble getting one. People would hire him, and then they’d find out he had no ID, and he’d be back on the street again. I think what’s lacking for these guys, if we really want to keep them out of jail once they get out, is a much better-coordinated support system to help them get back on their feet once they get out—not just giving them back their clothes and $20 for a bus pass.

Do you feel your work has an impact? What keeps you going back? Is this something you’d recommend to other retirees with a Swarthmore-type education?

Maurice Mercier, the man who founded our program, handed it over to someone else, and he wrote a handbook for how to run this program so it can be replicated in other places. It’s called Resilience for the Inward Journey. There’s a workbook for people running the program and a separate workbook for the participants. Any place—a church, an incarceration facility, any other nonprofit—can get this book to run their own programs. That might be of interest to some of our alumni, if they wanted to get a local organization where they live to start a program.

If you think you want to volunteer, I highly recommend you do. Of course, every jail and every prison has its own system for dealing with volunteers. You would have to find out in your local area what the needs were and put together your own proposal, but for me it has been extremely rewarding.

One of the things that surprised me the most when I first started was how grateful they were that I even came. A lot of these guys feel that the world has forgotten about them, that nobody cares that they’re there, that nobody cares about them, and that life has handed them some really bad deals and people have treated them badly. Just to have someone who comes in and shakes hands with them and gives them an hour of an interesting activity, so they can forget about their problems, forget about where they are, and get interested in a debate or somebody giving a speech about something interesting, or just to have someone who talks to them and isn’t lecturing them on how “bad” they are, it’s a great gift you can give them, just by going there and visiting them and treating them like human beings. They really are so grateful. That’s one of the things that keeps me going back: that they really appreciate it.