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Not for Profit: V.I. Prison Project

March 26, 2009 — About four years ago, when a murder was committed on St. John, Kim Lyons knew both the victim and the accused, and she knew the families of both men. The after effects of the crime reverberated with her.
"It drew me in," says Lyons, V.I. Prison Project co-founder. "How it was committed, the trial, and what happens to the families afterwards. They, too, need help. Their lives fell apart in the criminal-justice process."
She saw needs on both sides.
"What struck me at the time was that both groups needed attention," Lyons says. "The community rallied around the family of the victim, and rightfully so. St. John is a small island; this was up close and personal, but I felt that we should reach out to the family of the accused, as well."
It was an eye-opening experience.
"It was the first time I'd seen something like that clearly," Lyons says. "Publicly, our fascination with a crime ends with the trial, and we go about our business, but that's just the beginning of another set of circumstances for both families."
Lyons visited the accused man at Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix at the request of his mother, who hadn't seen him in six months.
"She hadn't the financial or emotional wherewithal," Lyons says. "I was traveling back and forth on a regular basis, so I visited and we developed a friendship, and that led me to the path of prison reform."
Two years ago Lyons met Keith Benjamin, a man with the necessary background to inform her mission. Benjamin was released from prison in 2007, his sentence commuted to time served by then-Gov. Charles Turnbull. He had served 25 years of a life sentence for a murder he says he did not commit.
The two had dovetailing passions, and the grassroots organization was born. While Lyons' focus is to help families of the prisoners with communication and with rehabilitation for the prisoners, Benjamin focuses on preventing young men from getting behind bars in the first place.
"The biggest challenge and the biggest educational opportunity is to change the public perception of prisoners," Lyons says. "We need to change the way people look at men and women who have made mistakes, big mistakes. It's an opportunity to learn compassion and forgiveness."
She notes a prevalent theme in prison reform.
"The statistics are there," she says. "Of 95 percent leaving prison, 70 percent will return. Punishment alone doesn't work. When we take away someone's liberty, that's punishment. Degrading and dehumanizing prisoners, stripping them of all human contact, isn't going to help."
The answer is rehabilitation, learning a trade and earning a GED in prison, Lyons says.
Benjamin is a living example of the intelligence of this philosophy. He spoke from St. Louis, where he is attending a religious conference.
"Keeping me in prison served no more purpose," he says. "I had been rehabilitated."
But that wasn't easy. After serving two years at Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix, Benjamin was shipped to the states, where he got transferred from one federal prison to another before he wound up at Lompoc Prison in California, where his life changed.
"I was young, wild and angry," he says. "At Lompoc, a couple of older guys told me, 'Don't let the negative destroy you.'"
Benjamin took the advice to heart. He emerged from Lompoc with a bachelor of arts degree in social psychology from a Chapman University prison program.
"I needed that to keep sanity," he says now, "and, most of all, I have accepted Jesus. That's my strength."
Benjamin wound up serving his final six years at Golden Grove, but this time the former "wild, angry, young man," along with another prisoner, created an inmate GED program, along with help from a prison educational coordinator.
Benjamin focuses his energies on a mentoring program at Lockhart Elementary School.
"These are boys who need a father," he says. "I want them to know that there's a man that cares for them. That's where my spirit is heading. It's in my heart. I'm trying to touch young lives in a positive way. One thing I'd like to say to victims of crimes and violence is my passion goes out to them. And, I'd like for the families of victims and prisoners to be able to come together."
That is just one of the many goals of the Prison Project.
"We need to make a human connection with the prisoners," Lyons says. "That's what we're trying to do, to remove the walls of shame."
About 100 V.I. prisoners, including women, are housed in Virginia's supermax prisons. The men are at Red Onion, Kean and Wallens Ridge, while the women are incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Institute for Women.
The inmates, however, are no longer so isolated. Lyons and a small group of volunteers write to the inmates. This February for Black History Month, the project produced "Strength to Strength," a one-hour radio show on WSTA featuring V.I. music and readings of poetry and speeches by black leaders. It was broadcast on WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky., and heard in the Virginia prisons. To download, click here.
The project always needs volunteers. To volunteer or for more information, contact Lyons at 514-1422 or via email.
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