April 25, 2024

Hercules Finley has devoted much of his life to helping kids in trouble

Hercules Finley (yes, that’s his birth name) spent 25 years in the Sedgwick County Jail, not as a resident, but as a volunteer chaplain, in service and obedience to his ministerial calling. As his time there grew longer, the faces changed.

“I looked up and I was the oldest person in there,” said Finley, now 68. “At first, the people in there were close to my age. Before I knew it, the average age was like 30. They were getting younger and younger.”

Finley then turned his service and attention to youth, and to helping stem the flow of youth into the juvenile justice system where profiteers hunt and hound them. It has become his life’s focus.

Like the ACLU of Kansas, Finley said the staggering debt juvenile offenders continue to accrue keeps him deeply concerned about their future, and the future of the communities they come from. He supports ACLU efforts to eliminate juvenile fines and fees.

He’s been working out of a Wichita middle and high school, helping students with social and emotional learning. Later this year, he will begin work in a community-based project called, “School Halls, Not Prison Walls,” a prison prevention program founded by his friend, Dr. William Polite, director of equity, diversity, and accountability with Wichita’s school district.

Finley said his ministry took him to every prison in Kansas. Those experiences convinced him that his work needed to begin earlier and upstream.

“I’ve always been an advocate for the imprisoned,” he said. “But we have to work to make sure we get to kids before they end up in that school-to-prison pipeline.”

Polite’s program aims to turn potential dropouts into what he calls, “math-letes,” a play on the word athlete. Along with mentorship, they believe a strong mathematics foundation will boost graduation rates while simultaneously lowering incarceration rates.

Finley was his first recruit.

“We have to put faces on that data,” Finley said about the high rates of incarceration for Black males in particular. “We have to get in their face and say, ‘hold up, we see you.’ We have to make it known that there’s a future for them.’”

He said he and Polite make weekly visits to juvenile detention centers hoping to fish yet another youth drifting toward prison.

Like the Roman hero whose name he shares, Finley is known for his strength and for his numerous and far-ranging adventures, though Finley’s work could rival the 12-Labours of the historical Hercules.

The monstrous prison industrial complex stands perhaps as more frightening than the Nemean Lion or the Lernean Hydra the historical Hercules defeated. Where there is profit, there’s sometimes also predation, he said.

We must awaken people to the systemic calamities claiming so many young lives he said.

“We have to help these kids,” Finley said. “At this age, I’d like to think that I have nothing to lose. I’m all in.”