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By Stephen A. Carter (12/30/2009)

Happy New Year! It’s hard to imagine that we were so concerned about Y2K and the simultaneous meltdown of global ATMs a decade ago when now it’s what is not in the bank’s vaults that seems to be of greater concern.

A lot of things have changed in the last 10 years — especially economic connectivity — but at the same time, human conflict is no less prolific than a decade, a century or even a millennium ago. 

Typically, print and electronic media outlets obsess on the prospect of world peace at the initiation of a new year; 2010 has been ushered in with a heated debate over the long-term role of the United States in Afghanistan and the Mideast in general. What may be different this time is the apparent recognition that the only way to win is to facilitate local governance.

Our beleaguered military knows from our half-dozen years in Iraq that the only hope of sustainable peace in Afghanistan will be to increase our involvement in peacemaking rather than nation-building, although the distinction is often blurred. Any significant reduction in hostilities can only be accomplished by our facilitation of a better place. 

At last October’s annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association in Barbados, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations sought and was granted an affiliation with the ICPA to prepare a prototypical detention facility for application in post-conflict locations. Architects, planners, builders and manufacturers volunteered to prepare a “how-to” manual that would guide the rapid construction of much-needed detention facilities following the reduction of hostilities.

This is one example of peacemaking that professional organizations can undertake to empower and support risk-takers who make eye contact with under-resourced local leaders on a daily basis. In the past, the ACA organized the delivery of basic prison supplies to Haiti as part of a humanitarian outreach initiative. The International Relations Committee, under the leadership of Bob Goble, will be defining a year’s outreach activities at the January mid-winter meeting in Tampa. 

Just as we have learned that boots on the ground are essential to achieve a stable military condition, the same is required for a sustainable peacemaking operation. I have the pleasure of knowing a correctional administrator whose boots will leave an incredibly large footprint when he leaves Kabul in a couple of months. His voluntary assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan have redefined peacemaking for me. 

I met Ken McKellar 20 years ago when he was warden at the South Carolina State Penitentiary in Columbia. We worked together in the early stages to replace that century-old facility so the city could develop condos on the site. The state achieved a new prison from the deal while the city learned a valuable lesson in why mixed-use development is best left to those with deeper pockets.

Leaving the South Carolina Department of Corrections after more than 31 years, Ken could have chosen many less dangerous paths than to become an advisor first to the Iraqi prison system and then for almost two years to the Afghan prison service.

I realize a number of Americans accepted prison-management assignments in these conflict zones and did so with mixed results at best. Attend any international conference on corrections and you will learn why Ken McKellar, and others like him, are essential to restoring a better image of corrections in that confused part of our planet.

Ken could have been very satisfied with carrying out his task of advising the director of the Afghan prison system, but his large heart prevented him from stopping with that honorable task. Through his involvement with the Kairos and Horizon prison ministries, he organized a shipment of food and clothing for his Afghani prison staff from all points of our enriched nation. He believes that peace is more easily achieved with the absence of hunger.

Assuming neighborhood security will be established through the plan to dispatch 30,000 additional U.S. troops, our focus should shift to the establishment of the basis for future self-government through the guarantee of equal access to education by both genders. As basic as that seems to American principles of equality, one proceeds with the risk of harm with this assumption in Afghanistan. Understanding this principle of peacemaking, Ken organized the receipt of supplies for a local school that includes young girls.

There are many characteristics about Ken that are likeable, but one of the most is his genuine desire for personal engagement that leads to harm reduction.

So much of the 24-hour news from Afghanistan centers around the efforts of the U.S. and our allies in training the local police forces on the principles of community security. As the streets become safer, the prison system must reflect a commitment to basic human rights. Through Ken’s efforts with Afghan officials to develop training manuals for correctional staff, the Afghan Central Prison Directorate received an award for staff training and management.

Completely separate from his tireless efforts in Afghanistan, at the 2008 ICPA meeting in Prague, Ken became acquainted with a retired military general from Vietnam. Through an interpreter, Ken learned that both of them had served as foot soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, but on different sides of the conflict. They met again last October in Barbados and spent an evening sharing dinner and stories of how lasting peace is best achieved through continued personal contact based on shared human values. That is the characteristic of peacemaking that America is now asked to promote.

Like most heroes, Ken doesn’t talk much about his days as a Marine Corps rifleman in Vietnam or his daily sacrifice of creature comforts while helping to reconstruct confidence and capability among people that are suspicious of our intentions in their country. He just gets up each day and practices what he believes, and the image of America improves just a little bit more.

On numerous flights from one comfortable and safe zone to another in this country, I have joined other passengers, crowded together for a couple of hours, in applauding our service men and women who will share our space for a brief a time. We have overlooked people like Ken who are not in uniform — not now, at least — but who through their sacrifices are sharing their belief that we should be remembered by what we build, not what we destroy.

If this acknowledgement of Ken McKellar reflects a trend, then peace awaits. The new decade offers us another opportunity to examine a trend of personal sacrifice by a skilled correctional manager over many years and transition this example into a routine of professional outreach. If nothing else, write him at kmckellar@bellsouth.net and say thank you while becoming inspired to do a bit more to create a better place.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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