Coming together, regardless of who you are.
That was the message stated time and again Wednesday evening at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility as the inmate group Peace and Unity celebrated its successes with a banquet.
The group, which was founded in 2011 by inmate Mark Wilder, is meant as a way to unite prisoners who had once served in gangs, and to educate them on life skills.
-Messenger photo by Peter Kaspari
Andy Nielsen, left, and Ernie Walters, Fort Dodge Correctional Facility inmates, provide music at the first Peace and Unity banquet at the prison.
"I want to save the youth that are in prison and those in society that are treading down the same alley I was," Wilder said.
Wilder, who said he had been involved in gangs before going to prison, said the program has shown success.
"Our purpose is to show that people can come together in peace and unity," he said. "Here, everybody can sit at a table and come together, no matter what you do or what you wear."
Throughout the prison's visitor room, inmates could be seen at tables with not only other inmates but also staff members and visitors.
Correctional Officer Cassie Miller, who has worked with several of the Peace and Unity group members, has been impressed with their work.
"It's really rewarding watching the offenders, and you can tell that they're eager to learn," she said.
Inmate Adrian Walker has been through Peace and Unity classes twice.
"The classes help you better yourself as a human being," Walker said.
The most important skill he learned was communication, he said.
"It's not just how to voice an opinion, but how to cope with anger and speak respectfully to each other," he said. "I look forward to seeing everybody that took the time to change their lives."
Speaking to the group, Wilder, who has served time in other prisons, said the opportunities FDCF has given him with Peace and Unity could never be accomplished at another facility.
"Here you see staff sitting with offenders," he said. "At any other prison, you wouldn't see this happening."
What's most important is taking the message of peace and unity beyond the prison walls, he said.
"Tell your friends about it," Wilder said. "Tell them about the ways you can come together, and be able to help each other out."
The main purpose of Peace and Unity, Wilder said, is to educate everyone involved so they don't go back to making the decisions that landed them in prison.
"It's not about picking up a gun or a knife," he said. "It's about picking up a book and pen to educate yourself."