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Aid and a Sympathetic Ear : Inmates' Plight Eased by 'Friends Outside'

August 29, 1985|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Lying on a vinyl mattress, Meredith Kelly cried through her second night back in jail.

With no family here and no friends, Kelly, 54, expected no visitors.

But the next morning, Kelly found out she wasn't alone after all.

"Thank God, Joyce is coming today," she said at Sybil Brand Institute for Women near Monterey Park. "I don't really have anybody else."

Joyce Ride is a volunteer for Friends Outside, a national organization providing assistance to inmates and their families, Ride has spent the last seven years helping women like Kelly cope with life behind bars.

Sometimes, as in this case, it might mean offering friendship to an inmate with no other visitors.

But frequently, Ride said, inmates are really more concerned about their families than their own welfare.

"Either they're lonely and they have nobody to visit them or they have family problems," said Ride, who lives in Encino and is the mother of astronaut Sally Ride. "Often, they say that this is the first time they've been treated with respect or like an individual."

The volunteers don't know whether they are speaking with a murderer or a shoplifter, she said, because Friends Outside never asks why the person has been incarcerated.

Another volunteer jail visitor, Mary Stetson, agreed that the visits are an important part of inmates' lives.

"You can get awfully sentimental and think that you're bringing joy and cheer into these peoples' lives," said Stetson, who lives in Sierra Madre and has been visiting at Sybil Brand for the last six years. "Sometimes the inmates even seem to exaggerate, saying that we're super or marvelous while we're talking. But I really am convinced that some good is being done."

With 19 chapters in California, and one each in Idaho and Nevada, Friends Outside is the largest volunteer organization in the country providing assistance to inmates and their families.

About 250 volunteers work with the Los Angeles County chapter, which is based in Pasadena. The organization is nonsectarian, nonprofit and funded almost entirely by private contributions.

Last year, volunteers visited more than 4,000 inmates at Sybil Brand and Los Angeles County Jail. In addition to offering their friendship, jail visitors provide information on housing, employment, transportation and drug and alcohol programs.

Often, they are the first to notify families that a relative has been incarcerated.

"It expands your horizons," Stetson said. "You get to really know somebody. You are meeting human beings on a different kind of level than you would ordinarily."

One woman, for instance, who had been at Sybil Brand Institute for more than a week, said that her husband and three children still didn't know that she was in jail. She asked Friends Outside to tell them.

Another woman lost her apartment after she was arrested. She asked Friends Outside to help her two children find a place to live.

And a man in state prison called Friends Outside asking for help. He needed a postage stamp to mail his family a letter.

Anxiety Relieved

"I relieve a lot of anxiety felt by inmates," said Richard Markham, a Friends Outside employee at California Institute for Men in Chino and one of five paid representatives stationed at prisons throughout the state. "When you're out on the street, you take a lot of things for granted. When you're inside the institution, even little things make a difference."

Markham said that prison representatives are like "friends inside," offering many of the same services as jail visitors, as well as providing information on prison visiting hours and dress regulations.

Both prison representatives and jail visitors are trained by Friends Outside staff to be good listeners and to reserve any personal or moral judgments.

Usually, they will listen as long as an inmate wants to talk.

'It Means a Contact'

"It means hope," said Kelly, who had been visited before by Friends Outside when she was in jail two years ago. "It means a contact with the outside world. . . . It's a little peaceful time away from that dormitory."

Volunteers, who visit county jails for several hours once a week, are often the only visitors inmates have.

"Many of these people haven't had much encouragement," said Jean Nicholson, who works part time for Friends Outside and volunteers at the Pasadena office. "People have let them down all their lives. When somebody comes from Friends Outside, that means a great deal to them."

At a time when public sympathy seems to be directed toward the victims of crime, the people at Friends Outside say they must battle popular prejudices against the offenders.

"I have to explain to my friends carefully what I do," Nicholson said. "If I told them I was working for the American Cancer Society, there would be no problem. . . . But we're not like apple pie."

The prejudices, however, do not deter them.

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