It was a noble effort that failed. It was our attempt to get the victims affected by the Gov. Sam Brownback-led budget cuts to tell their stories in public.
About 30 were invited to become “Kansas Voices” against extremism in the Legislature, and most expressed interest in doing so. One was published June 6 as an “As I See It” column in The Star headlined, “Mass incarceration hurts offenders, children, families.”
That led to her termination as the volunteer sponsor of an antiviolence program at the Lansing Correctional Facility after 10 years of service.
We wanted to help stop the insanity in Topeka by waking up moderates and liberals in time for the elections. A nonvoting moderate gives tacit support to extremism because extremists always vote.
Who better to speak than the laid off road maintenance workers, discounted teachers, food pantry volunteers, mental hospital staffers and prison program sponsors? We were surprised by our nearly complete lack of response. Half of us became silent partners because of the toll that speaking truth to power can take. Business would suffer.
Conservative clients would go elsewhere. Nonprofits would lose donors. State grants would dry up. Good reasons for withholding one’s visible support. Our potential Kansas Voice writers had the same problems. Fear of what could happen kept them silent.
For instance, the teachers we approached wanted to tell how disrespected they felt by ever tighter budgets, but their enthusiasm melted into to silence. Our teachers didn’t feel free to say “ouch” in public when the government that feeds them and harms them was listening.
That’s what happened to the Rev. Janet Weiblen of Merriam, speaking on behalf of the incarcerated men in her Reaching Out From Within group.
“When is a human being not a human being?” she wrote. “After they commit a crime and we send them to prison. Then we treat them abominably and tell the world that prisons are about rehabilitation.”
Janet’s “As I See It” column did not mention the program, but the last sentence of a brief biography about her did mention the connection.
The group’s civilian board of directors did not approve, and Janet was placed on probation. When Janet declined to meet alone with the executive director to discuss the matter, she was terminated.
The point is this: the organization depends on the approval of the Kansas Department of Corrections for access to prisoners in every DOC facility in the state. When one of the group’s well-known volunteers publicly criticizes the state department that enables the organization’s existence, that naturally catches the attention of the board.
As one who has volunteered with Janet and worked with the program in the past, I can attest to this: Janet wrote nothing untrue about Kansas prison conditions in her column.
The Brownback administration would be crazy to retaliate against this wonderful anti-violence organization that has done so much to rehabilitate prisoners at no expense to the state.
The recidivism rate of ex cons who have been in the program is far below the statewide average. But, like the prophets of old who spoke truth to power, Janet is paying the price.
Steve Nicely of Mission is a retired journalist after 35 years at The Star. He is an associate with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.