People with incarcerated loved ones gather twice each month in Cedar Rapids for support and to learn more about navigating a complicated justice system.
“Living Beyond the Bars is a non-judgmental support group. We strive to be understanding, honest and supportive of people who care about someone who is in the criminal justice system,” said Sue Hutchins, who co-facilitates the group with Leon Kroemer.
The group, which has been meeting on the 1st and 3rd Mondays of each month at Kenwood Park United Methodist Church for more than two years, has about seven core members. Many more have attended in times of crisis, or when an immediate need for emotional support arose.
“As a society, we often talk about jails and prisons in terms of the impact they have on those who work there or are sentenced there,” Hutchins said. “But there is this whole other layer. Placing someone in jail not only affects that individual, but has consequences for spouses, children, parents and friends of the person behind bars.”
Hutchins, a retired family and substance abuse counselor, saw a need to support the family and friends of inmates while working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in New Mexico.
“What I learned is that society provides very little support for those who are out in the community. There is no focus on the family as a unit. These are people trying to do what they can for their loved one in prison while still hoping to move forward with their own lives,” she said.
“And in so many cases, families just don’t know what to expect. They are unprepared for how the criminal justice system views and treats them, and for the unnecessary shame and stigma they will likely experience at their school and in their own community.”
In this realm Hutchins unfortunately has firsthand experience. As she brutally details in a recently released book, “Just Another Girl,” Hutchins faced abuse and addiction from an early age. In addition, her late husband served time in prison — a past that didn’t go away although his sentence was commuted.
“Like I said, this is a non-judgmental support group. We are that way because we understand the need,” Hutchins said.
Living Beyond the Bars meetings are open to all. Held from 6 to 7 p.m., the first meeting of the month typically focuses on support, and the second on information and resources.
Although the group does not provide financial assistance, they’ve helped families stay connected by providing transportation for prison visitation. They’ve also partnered with like-minded organizations to sponsor community workshops on justice issues, and advocated for changes to justice system policies and processes that place undue burdens on families.
When inmates return home, the group can help ease the transition by preparing the household for changes in behavior that may otherwise confuse or frustrate.
Organizations like Living Beyond the Bars help this community make good on its promise of equal justice and reintegration. They remind us that all people have value.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Jan. 27, 2018. Photo credit: Andy Abeyta/The Gazette