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Missouri prisoners aiding Joplin tornado victims

Tornado victims and relief workers in Joplin have been cooling down and relieving stress with the help of Missouri prisoners.

Since a devastating tornado hit the southwest Missouri city on May 22, state inmates have made thousands of items that have been delivered to Joplin through a prison program that is intended to teach convicted criminals to give back to communities and victims.

This past week, for example, Department of Corrections personnel delivered 501 "cool ties" and 389 "stress pillows" made by prisoners to the Ozark Center in Joplin, which provides mental health care through the Freeman Health System. The "cool ties" consist of cloth filled with beads, which expand when chilled and can be used to cool down people who have been working outside. The stress pillows are filled with flax seeds, which when warmed and placed on the skin can provide relief to both physical and mental pains.

But the intended benefit is not only for people in Joplin, where the tornado killed 160 people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed or damaged an estimated 8,000 homes and businesses.

"All this is kind of geared toward a higher purpose," Department of Corrections Director George Lombardi said Friday. "Once, people are engaged in this way, it builds up compassion where either none existed or it was buried. That makes for a safer environment (in prison) and enhances the opportunity for inmates to change."

Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services for the Ozark Center, said the prisoner-made "cool ties" have proved particularly popular. Every day, a team of community crisis workers packs a cooler full of ice, water and "cool ties" and distributes them to people removing debris and working on damaged homes.

"They absolutely love them — they cheer when they see them coming because they know they are going to have something that will cool them down a little," Mieseler said.

The "stress pillows" have been used like heating pads for relief workers with shoulder and back pains and have been used as calming devices for people dealing with mental illness, stress and anxiety, she said.

Inmates at numerous institutions have been involved in the Joplin relief effort. For example, the 1,531 "cool ties" that have been delivered so far have come from inmates at the Women's Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City and the Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland.

The inmates' Joplin relief effort also has delivered 631 coloring books, more than 450 quilts and blankets, 137 purses and bags and numerous other items such as stuffed animals and bookmarks.

Many of the items are a regular part of the department's Restorative Justice program, in which prisoners make things for hospitals, nursing homes, schools and nonprofit organizations. The program also includes courses aimed at helping inmates understand the effect of crimes on victims, families and communities.

According to figures from the Department of Corrections, inmates also have contributed more than $10,000 toward Joplin relief efforts.

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