A prison ministry in Norton, Kansas, moves beyond the bars to serve the families of inmates visiting from afar.
On the high plains of northwestern Kansas stands the town of Norton, population just over 2,900.
This farm community has some good places to eat and shop, a community-owned movie theater, and is working on economic development and improving its housing stock.
It has modest sightseeing attractions to draw tourists off Highway 36, like the They Also Ran gallery, honoring men who lost presidential elections from Thomas Jefferson (who lost to John Adams in 1796) through Mitt Romney. It has re-imagined its historic 19th-century Stagecoach Station 15, and it has Prairie Dog State Park just a few miles outside of town.
Many visit for other reasons, though. They come because they have a loved one incarcerated at the Norton Correctional Facility, the most remotely located prison in the state.
Just over 700 men can be housed in this combination medium and minimum security prison. That is a lot of wives and children, parents and siblings, who might converge on Norton, especially during three-day weekends when families have time to make the long drive from all over Kansas to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Until recently Norton had just a few dozen motel rooms, although a new motel has upped those numbers. Those who cannot obtain lodging, or cannot afford to do so, face a major obstacle.
“If you can keep a man near his family, he is much more likely to be successful when he gets out.” That’s the belief of Carolyn Plotts, who lives in nearby Norcatur, Kansas. She, along with her husband Jim Plotts, is part of a group involved in prison ministry, leading Bible study classes and getting to see the inmates as individuals with families, just like themselves. The Plotts realized they could provide a useful service if they could help inmate families with an affordable and safe alternative for a place to stay when they visit town.
That’s when The Haven was born. The volunteer group purchased a three-story home through the previous owner’s generous financial terms. After some remodeling, the house now has a communal kitchen, living and dining areas, 13 bedrooms, and four bathrooms. It can accommodate 30 overnight guests. There are also four small apartments in a detached building behind the main house. Those apartments are available to whoever might need affordable housing, for however long they might need it. The volunteer group formed a 501(c)3, nonprofit organization called Northwest Kansas Inmate Resource Council, Inc. That board is not big on creating arbitrary rules that stand in the way of meeting real needs. That’s why their guests are not just prison families. Sometimes they are people seeking shelter from storms, or battered or homeless women requiring shelter.
Lodgers pay a modest fee: $10 a night for adults, $2 for children up to 18 years old.
Plotts said when they took possession of the house in 2005, it was devoid of furnishings and essentials. She went on a local radio program and got the word out to the community about what they needed and how people could help. “Within two weeks, the house was fully furnished.” Even though they’ve been operating for eight years, they still continue to receive generous donations of items like furnishings, dishware or linens.
The remodeling of the house was done by volunteers Jim Plotts, Jim Rowe and Bob Virgil, with Carolyn in the role of coordinator and curtain-maker. Work crews from the prison were dispatched to work in the yard. A prison crew does laundry for the house in its facility, which would be a formidable task for a home-sized washer and dryer. And the prison administration gives referrals to families needing lodging during visits to Norton. But as far as managing that human flow, The Haven is on its own.
Enter Lori Shields.
She is a fast-talking ball of fire from Lawrence, Kansas, whose Kentucky accent betrays the origins of her earlier life. She moved to Lawrence at age 21, because that was her husband Damian’s town. He later got into what she calls a “bad situation” involving drugs. “He got arrested and that led him to Norton Correctional Facility, three years ago.”
Shields and her husband had two small children when he was incarcerated. For them to make the five-hour trip from Lawrence to Norton was expensive. That’s until she found The Haven. She became a regular guest.
“At that time, no volunteers actually stayed in the house,” she recalled. “It was on the honor system when you came in to find your room. There was no one to really greet people and help them. I offered to take that on myself. It became my ministry.”
Shields started out informally running things during her stays, making sure she was present when families arrived, even when they came in late at night. Soon, she decided to move to Norton permanently and live with her children in a small room in The Haven. She took a job as a paraprofessional at the local elementary school. Now promoted to school secretary, she spends days organizing children, teachers and parents. At 4 p.m. she gets to The Haven and starts returning phone calls, scheduling people into the bedrooms for visits and writing their names on a white-board diagram of the house. Shields says she sometime has moments when things don’t run exactly right, like if a guest does not strip his bed upon departure, as requested. She might think to herself, oh, these people! “Then I realize, I am these people,” she said.
Shields is now a paid employee, although Carolyn Plotts refers to her salary as more of a “stipend.” Watching the two women work together in the house, caring for Lori’s young daughter, and planning a Memorial Day picnic for the large group they are expecting, is to see two people who function together like the best of friends, or even like family. “She calls me Grandma,” Carolyn said, referring to Lori’s young daughter.
Shields’ husband is expected to be released from prison later this year, and she has located a residence for her family to move into. She notes that is unusual for prisoners to remain in Norton upon their release. But her husband, who is a certified welder, already has a local job in the works. Their children are accepted in school and are making friends. “I have met wonderful people here, and never felt more like I belong to something,” she said. “I love this town. It has been a blessing to me.”
Julianne Couch is a writer based in Bellevue, Iowa. She is at work on a new book, Far From Terminal: America’s Resilient Middle, for which this visit was a part.