After 19 years in the same prison, Ronnie Rhodes is having to get used to a new facility with new rules, after being moved from Lansing to Hutchinson this week.
The move came as a surprise to Rhodes, his attorney and a pastor who led a non-violent group, where Rhodes had become a mentor to other prisoners.
Jan Lunsford, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said officials would offer no explanation for the move, which came a month after the Washburn University Law Clinic filed a petition for clemency to Gov. Sam Brownback.
For 30 years, Rhodes has maintained his innocence in the 1981 killing of Cleother Burrell. Washburn has investigated Rhodes’ case and called his conviction into question, based on spotty evidence and conflicting testimony. DNA evidence that once existed, which could prove Rhodes’ claims or seal his guilt, has apparently been lost by the Wichita Police Department.
In a phone conversation the week before Thanksgiving, Rhodes said he had obtained a job working at the kitchen in the unit at Lansing, where he had been incarcerated since Aug. 26, 1992.
Before that, a Reno County District Court judge ruled that Rhodes had been illegally punished by guards in Hutchinson and held in violation of his rights to due process of law. Representing himself without legal counsel, Rhodes also prevailed in the 10th Circuit of the U.S. District Court of Appeals, which said he could challenge civil rights violations by Hutchinson officials.
Now, Rhodes, 57, finds himself back in Hutchinson. He said he doesn’t fully understand the reason for the move.
“I must admit thisis a very saddening situation for me and I am a bit depressed but I shall make the best of it,” Rhodes said in an email from prison.
On the positive side, Hutchinson offers more opportunities to work in private prison industries than Lansing. Hutchinson also has reentry programs to aid inmates once they are released. Rhodes has been turned down for parole eight times.
At Lansing, however, Rhodes had built a support network and become a leader in the “Reaching Out from Within” a program, which teaches inmates how to deal with non-violence. It’s run by Kansas City-area pastor Janet Weiblen, who said she believed Rhodes did not commit murder.
Hutchinson, meanwhile, is about twice the distance as Lansing from Topeka, where Rhodes was being represented in his petition for clemency by adjunct law professor Rebecca Woodman and and legal intern Michael Hinkin. Rhodes also had received 20 letters of support from staff at Lansing, who supported his release. Rhodes had gone 20 months with no disciplinary reports at Lansing.
“It’s like they took away all of his support,” Weiblen said. “It’s like they’re pulling the rug out from under him.”
Weiblen added that “Reaching Out from Within” founder SuEllen Fried is based in Hutchinson and is trying to get Rhodes in that program.
After serving years in a maximum custody, Rhodes had recently been upgraded to low-medium custody — the second-lowest management level. When he arrived in Hutchinson, he said he was put in a cell with five other inmates, all of whom were under maximum-level custody, with the highest restrictions.
Said Rhodes in an email: “I will attempt to make this new experience as positive as possible and keep myself focused.”
Washburn has started an online petition in support of clemency for Rhodes.