Our entire area was shocked by the news last month when we learned Correctional Officer Ronald Johnson had been killed during an escape attempt at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
As the community continues to heal there's a program aimed at making sure inmates can leave the prison walls new men, ready to rejoin society.
But this program doesn't just help inmates serving their time, it's also helping inmates once they get out.
It's a different world behind these bars. A world many of us know nothing about.
"You don't know who to trust. You don't know anyone. You don't know the guards, the inmates. You feel like a lone wolf," Joe Kurkhove said.
Inmate Joe Kurkhove has called prison home since 1986. That year he also joined the Man-To-Man or M-2 program at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. He was matched with a sponsor who shared his same interests.
"He came in here not knowing what to expect, both of us did," Kurkhove said.
25 years later, Joe still has the same sponsor.
"The difference an M-2 man makes is if you're in here for the long run, you lose family. My mother died. It's good to have someone who is stable and is able to step in," Kurkhove said.
And someone to turn to when these high walls become overwhelming.
"That M-2 coming to talk to them and that caring has pulled them out of some dark places," Bruce Oliver said.
Because many inmates face that darkness when they enter prison.
M-2 Coordinator Bruce Oliver says there have been nearly 4,000 inmate-sponsor matches made since the program started 40 years ago. At the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls almost 200 inmates currently have sponsors.
"They develop a relationship and get their own schedule for visiting," Oliver said.
Some sponsors visit inmates twice a week for up to two hours at a time. Others visit once a month like Joe's sponsor. But no matter how much time is spent together, inmates look forward to every visit.
"It really makes life livable, makes it enjoyable again," Kurkhove said.
And it's especially enjoyable for inmates who have a sponsor and are ready to leave the barbed-wire fences.
Former inmates tell us it's not just the first few steps out of the gates that are scary. It's the minutes, hours and days back in society without any direction. I met an inmate who says he would have been lost without the Berkeland family.
"I probably wouldn't be out because I'd have no incentive to get out," Tim Caffrey said.
But former inmate Tim Caffrey is out after 30 years. He joined the program at 17 and visited with the same family every week. Those visits added up, more than 1,500 of them.
"He brought me in stories and everything from the outside and that's what kept my hunger going to return back to society," Caffrey said.
Now at 48-years-old he can see the outside world whenever he wants. His M-2 sponsors, the Berkeland's took him into their home. So far, they've helped him get a drivers license and a car. He's learning how to wash clothes, use technology like a cell phone and most importantly is getting the support he needs while he finds work.
"It's been a month and I still can't find a job but I still have a roof over my head and I still have people helping me along the way," Caffrey said.
And besides the basic necessities he's also getting life advice.
"Not just the place where I live and the things that I got, the material things but also the knowledge that I use in order to find these jobs," Caffrey said.
"I highly recommend anyone that feels they'd be a friend to someone who has no other friends," Arnie Berkeland said.
Tim isn't the first inmate 82-year-old Arnie and his wife Arlene Berkeland have helped, he's the fourth. They've been involved in the M-2 program for 33 years.
"I think you need a calling for it. I don't know why I joined really I just got started and the more I got going, the more I believed in it," Berkeland said.
But after all the visits and talks, they say they've developed a bond and now Tim's just like family.
"They've made mistakes and paid the price and they deserve another chance," Berkeland said.
And that second chance is what many are hoping to get once they leave the prison gates.
Former inmates who were once part of this program are less likely to return to prison if they have an M2 sponsor. The coordinator says less than 1% do return.
There is also a woman-to-woman program as well. And in both programs, there are more inmates than sponsors.
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