Hutchinson Correctional Facility is Kansas’ second-largest prison for adult male inmates. The facility houses nearly 2,000 men, and certain programs at the prison aim to make sure that many of them never come back.
“I wish the weight pit was still over here because I like lived in that thing. Any time I got a chance, I was in the weight pit,” Tommy Galindo says.
It’s been nearly three years since Galindo has stood here. But this time around, his perspective is different.
Abigail Wilson, reporter, to Galindo: “Does it look different out here?”
“No, it’s still clean," Galindo says, laughing. "It still looks the same. I stayed in that dorm at the end over there."
He points to a building about 100 yards away. The far side of the dorm appears to touch the tall fence that surrounds it. Two rows of looped razor wire rest on the top of the barrier. The prison yard at Hutchinson Correctional Facility-East has a large garden tended to by inmates, playground equipment for visiting children, and lots and lots of white, featureless cinder blocks stacked high to separate the men in here from the outside world. Galindo serves as a mentor to inmates here.
“When I first became a mentor, I was walking back to the prison, I was like, ‘Man, what am I doing?’ Because most of the time when you leave here, you’re like, ‘I’m never coming back.' And they said, 'Don’t look back at the prison when you leave because if you look back, chances are you’re going to come back. It’s a bad thing,'” he says.
When he left after serving seven years for 16 different felonies, Galindo looked back.
“I was like, ‘Bye!’ I didn’t believe all that," Galindo says. "Well, I came back as a mentor, and it was different, but this felt good.”
Galindo says he never had a mentor while he was incarcerated, but he wanted to be one for someone else. He says he can only be a successful role model if his mentoree has the right intentions. He’s here today to speak to a group of men who, so far, have proven to be on the right track.
Inside the prison, in what is typically a visitation room, there are rows of chairs facing a small table stacked with rolls of white paper, a knotted blue ribbon on each.
A line of men stream into the room. Some keep their eyes on the floor; others walk with a bit more pride. Two are in wheelchairs, pushed by other inmates. They wear pleated royal blue robes, the wide sleeves hanging at their sides. The traditional graduation march "Pomp and Circumstance" plays over a speaker in the room. These inmates are here to graduate from various programs within the prison, or with their GEDs.
Galindo stands in front of the rows of graduates. He wears a Red Sox baseball cap and a fancy watch. His arms and hands are covered in tattoos.
“How ya’ll doing today?” Galindo asks. “I was once in your shoes before and believe me, my whole lifestyle changed when I got out, but it started with positive, productive people that I surrounded myself around in prison.”
Today’s graduation ceremony is the first that’s been held here in a long time, almost a decade. And this group is only a small selection of those graduating. Approximately 175 inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility have successfully completed programs such as Offender Work Force Development, Vocational Education, and GED during this past year.
“The guys you see here today put forth significant effort," says Rich Husselman, mentoring coordinator at the facility. "These aren't just like 'show up a few times' programs. GED is really tough now. There're some electrical guys, some carpentry guys, thinking for a change. All of those programs take a significant amount of effort.”
Husselman says the programs, although time-consuming for both inmates and staff, give inmates a lot better chance of staying out of the system when they’re released.
"A lot of these guys, you get to know them, you know their stories and they come from tough backgrounds, tough families, tough areas, and it's hard to break that cycle," he says.
Earlier this month, Gov. Sam Brownback visited some Kansas prisons and praised offender support initiatives, including mentoring programs. Husselman says that over the last ten years, the Kansas Department of Corrections has put more emphasis on the mentoring program and others to help with reentry.
“And our recidivism rate has come down. I mean it's in the I think it’s about 33 percent for every inmate," Husselman says. "But for those that are in mentoring, it's down to 8.7 percent. So it's pretty fantastic.”
He says Tommy Galindo, the former inmate who came to speak today, is a perfect example of that.
“My whole childhood, I was incarcerated," Galindo says. "From 12 years old to 18; in and out of juvenile correctional facilities; shot at people; stabbed people; been shot at. You name it.”
Galindo owns and operates five profitable barbershops throughout the state. He says the graduates today aren’t far behind him in achieving success.
“Keep your head up because you’re one of the strongest people there is on earth. You’ve done went the closest you can get to hell. Prison," Galindo says. "So you guys have went through more than anybody in this room. So be proud of that. Because when you get out, you’ve made it.”
Inmate Robert Swanson will be getting out in a few months. He’s serving a 40-month sentence for aggravated burglary.
“I did the OWD program, which is an interviewing technique program," Swanson says. "They prepare us for interviews as soon as we're released.”
He says the day’s activities—the caps and gown, the music, the speeches— were completely unexpected. And while he thinks the skills he learned will help when he is released, he’s not totally satisfied with the programs that are offered.
“I think they should have more of them," Swanson says. "I don’t think there’s enough programs here to accommodate all of the inmates. The gentlemen you see here certainly have bettered themselves with what they’re doing. And that’s the portion of us that are trying to do better. It’s like any place. You’ve got the positive and the negative anywhere you go.”
Former inmate-turned-mentor Tommy Galindo says he's here to focus on the positive. He surveys the prison yard with what feels like nostalgia, talking about how he used to be a barber in the prison, and remarking on how this place changed his life.
“I never thought I’d be as successful as I am cutting hair, Galindo says. "I knew I could do well with it, but I got all of the practice I need in here.”
Galindo says he feels like he made a connection with a few inmates today encouraging them to seek out education and invest their time wisely.
"I wanted to show that there is hope and that education is very important because without that, in all honesty, and being real…if they don’t have that where we’re coming from, more than likely you’re not going to be successful,” he says.