Ari Kohn compares the difficulty of getting into the program he runs with that of gaining entrance to an elite university – over the last five years, he’s been able to accept less than 25 percent of the hundreds of applications he’s received.
For the students that do get in, admission often proves to be life-changing.
Kohn is the founder and executive director of the truly amazing Post-Prison Education Program. Run from an office in downtown Seattle, the program’s basic aim is to guide people from prison back into society. It does this by not only supplying basic needs such as food, housing, and counseling, but also giving them hope for the future by opening up a path to further education, be it in trade schools or colleges.
That description doesn’t really do it justice – visiting the office, the first thing you notice is a tremendous energy. Much of this comes from the drive of former prisoners who sense a chance to get their lives on track, but much is also due to Kohn himself, who brings total dedication to his job.
His organization faces a monumental task. On average, around 18,000 prisoners are locked up by the Washington State Department of Corrections; every month, some 700 of them are released. About two out of three will be back inside within three years either for committing a new crime or violating the terms of their probation.
Across the country, newly released prisoners face similar problems: addiction, mental health issues, limited job skills, and a lack of money to meet basic needs such as food and housing. The first step of the transition from prison and back into society is especially perilous – about three out of four prisoners who recidivate do so in their first year out of jail (many during the first three months following release).
While the state does provide a patchwork of services, such as drug counseling, released prisoners are generally on their own. This has been especially true over the last thirty years, as prison populations have dramatically increased while politicians from both parties have battled to prove they are “tough on crime.” The reality is that there is little political gain in funding programs that are viewed as helping prisoners. In 1995, the Washington State Legislature even banned public money from being spent on college classes for prisoners.
Such actions, however politically expedient, fly in the face of research that consistently shows that education for prisoners reduces recidivism. Besides lowering crime, these education programs can also save governments money in the long run – in Washington State, for example, each prisoner costs the state more than $30,000 a year (not counting the huge costs of prosecution and appeals).
“What really makes it ridiculous is they know how to stop recidivism,” says Kohn, speaking of political cowardice. “It’s easily done and done at a much lower cost than imprisoning someone, they just choose not to do it.”
Kohn, 63, works around the clock. He not only keeps close tabs on the programs students – about 50 at any one time – but he has become a tireless and effective advocate, gaining the ear of Washington State politicians. It’s a credit to Kohn’s passion and political skills that he is respected by both Democrats and Republicans.
The program has produced stellar results – since its founding in 2006, it has served over 111 students; only two have recidivated. Its students – people who were once thought of as hopeless by society at large – have gone on to earn trade school and college degrees, support their families, and completely turn their lives around.
A preliminary study of the program by University of Washington researchers that followed 24 PPEP students found that zero had recidivated in their first year out of prison. In comparison, during the same time period the members of a control group that included 62 released prisoners that were not in the program committed a total of 23 new crimes, including 12 felonies and 11 misdemeanors.
U.S. prison populations have risen from 5000,000 to 2.3 million since 1980, but we may be nearing a turning point in our era of mass incarceration. This isn’t due to any moral rethinking, but budget constraints. Conditions in the California prisons are so bad that the Supreme Court just ruled that tens of thousands must be released in order to avoid “needless suffering and death.”
PPEP has only few staff and is underfunded. Kohn, in the first years, ran it largely from family money, and still rarely takes a salary. But if we’re ever going to pick our way out our current morass, PPEP – probably the only program in the country to offer such a wide range of “wraparound” services to former prisoners – points the way forward.
I met Kohn while researching The Hustle, which in part relates personal stories of addiction, incarceration, and reentry. Seeing the revolving door in-and-out of prison up close was heartbreaking, not only for the impact it has on the individuals involved, but their families. Kohn fights this by running a practical program that gets results, helping people that much of the rest of society simply considers irredeemable.
Kohn and I recently spoke about PPEP, including the challenges of getting it started and keeping it funded; the political obstacles he’s faced; what it takes to help a prisoners move ahead with their lives; and some of the amazing stories that have emerged from the program.
Doug Merlino: How did you start the program?
Ari Kohn: I went to an event in 2005, a “Welcome Home” party for people coming out of prison – there were two women and three men, and it was supposedly to welcome them back to the community. I wasn’t even thinking about prison systems at the time, in fact I was looking to go to law school. But there was a guy, an African American guy named Kevin, and he was coming out of prison as his brother was going back to prison, and they’d been doing that for like 25 years, since 1982. He spoke at this event and I was really moved by what he said, so I made arrangements to go to breakfast with him – he was staying at transitional housing for homeless people and I made an appointment to take him to breakfast. We spent about two hours up on Capitol Hill talking, and the whole time I was listening to him I just kept thinking: “If anything can save his life, it would be college.”
He’s bi-polar, and highly addicted to crack. I mean if you’ve got a speck of crack 3.2 miles away from where he’s standing, he can sniff it out and be on the way. So a combination of being addicted and mentally ill. But the guy is so intelligent and so compassionate and so well-spoken and so likeable that I just was really moved by his circumstances, with the addiction and mental illness and his battles with the prison system going back decades.
So after I had this breakfast I wrote Mike McCann, who founded the Law, Societies and Justice Program at the University of Washington and described Kevin to him. I basically just asked if he would support a program that would help people like Kevin get into college. McCann is a really busy guy – he heads a department at the UW, he travels the world, and sometimes he’s not quick to reply, but almost immediately he responded “Yes, yes, yes” to everything I had suggested or asked about.
So then I talked to Robin Hennes, who’s number two in admissions at the UW and got the same positive response. I talked to Kim Ambrose, who’s the supervising attorney at the Child and Youth Advocacy Clinic at the UW School of Law, and got the same positive response. So we started the program, about August of 2005. If I hadn’t met Kevin at that non-profit I’d be practicing law right now and the Post-Prison Education Program wouldn’t even exist.
What were your first steps?
The first thing was to get key people who knew what they were doing involved, so we spent from August 2005 until January 2006 meeting and talking with people and getting them to agree to participate in what we called a working committee. By the end of March 2006, we had around 29 people on a working committee and they were all pretty incredible people.
There were two third-year law students who were involved in the Innocence Project at the UW. The chairman of the board right now, Emile Pitre, is an associate vice president at UW in minority affairs. Roger Goodman, who is resigning the State House of Representatives to run for Congress. And social justice activists, and a lady, Polly Trout who does for homeless people in King County what we do for former prisoners statewide.
They all were on the working committee and on March 29, 2006 we had a meeting in a conference room at the law school and voted to go ahead. We decided to incorporate, seek non-profit status, and accepted our first student.
Who was your first student?
He was a guy who got us for more money than the two banks that he robbed and put him in the pen for nine years! One of original board members, who had worked in Walla Walla [State Penitentiary] for many, many years, introduced him. So I had just met this guy through the Department of Corrections and talked to him the day before, and I found out that on one day he had a house and a roof over his head and then he knew the next day he was going to be homeless. I thought that was pretty amazing although now I realize that most people who are going to be homeless only know a day in advance that it’s getting ready to happen. But back then it hadn’t occurred to me.
So I invited him to speak to our board, and our board member who knew him from Walla Walla interrupted and said, “Let me introduce him.” She praised him based on what he had done in Walla Walla’s education program. Then Polly Trout grabbed him and took him to Burien and put him in apartment and community college.
But the mistake was that we handed cash to an addict. We learned, and it’s almost impossible for a student now to get any cash from us. We’ll write a check to their landlord, pay tuition to school, write checks to King County Metro for bus passes, we’ll pay Amazon for books, go to the grocery store and buy Safeway gift cards, but it’s really unusual for us to give students cash because it’s self-defeating to give someone who’s battling addiction to give them cash they can misuse.
This guy went on a two-month binge, wrote an e-mail of apology and then asked for help. Which we didn’t provide. It was a huge learning experience. I still joke about it, but he got us for more money than the banks he robbed.
Did you have any models you were following?
We did, we had a fantastic model – Polly Trout, who started Seattle Education Access about eight years ago, which is a program that helps homeless people. It’s a wonderful non-profit. When we started she was on our working committee, and our budgeting process and a lot of our original concepts came from Seattle Education Access. Our interview process and scholarship process is adapted, because the population we serve is hugely different, but a lot is modeled on what Polly was doing.
At the start a lot of your funding came from personal sources, such as your mom?
I was naïve, I guess. Stupid, ignorant, naïve, or all of the above. But by the time that we started, we started learning these stories about former prisoners that you never, ever, ever read in mainstream media. The background stories like a baby born addicted to heroin. What the hell kind of chance does somebody like that have in life? Or a 13-year-old kid’s mom is gunned down in front of her on the hilltop of Tacoma and according to police reports she’s out there trying to resuscitate her mom who’s already dead and bleeding on the street from gun violence associated with drugs, and who knows what all else? So what chance does that 13-year-old have?
So we started learning the stories behind people’s crimes and I came to believe that if we put those stories out then people would just dump money on us. I thought we would never have a problem with funding. It never occurred to me that we would run into this absolutely mean-spirited, hate-mongering environment that primarily mainstream media has created that makes people not even want to know the background story.
So the deal was, if you look on our website and see the “Why We Help” section and see the first story there, it’s about the woman who’s video on our homepage, Becky H. To me, I felt like if somebody would read that story they wouldn’t be able to stop from clicking on the “Donate Now” button. I thought we would be adequately funded just from human compassion and that turned out to be just the most ignorant, stupid… it doesn’t say much for the UW, where I got my 3.82 GPA degree in political science. I mean they taught me nothing about political science! You don’t learn about true, real political science in college, at least you don’t learn about it at the University of Washington.
We quickly found out you could have 450 hits on your website a day, back in 2006, and not one person would donate. And the stories of the students didn’t compel people to support the program. So my mother and I very quickly found out that we were into something that was going to be way more costly than we envisioned. So for six years, I’ve worked for nothing. I mean literally for nothing. My take home when I draw a check is about $110 a week and last week and this week I won’t draw a paycheck.
So I’ve paid my living expenses out of savings and so on, and my mother basically used all of her retirement. She’ll turn 90 in August and if she lives to be 95 or 100, she’s going to be in trouble in terms of keeping a roof over her head. We got ourselves into that mess in terms of just misjudging how the public would react in regard to funding.
We were invited to apply to the Gates Foundation and that was one of the most disconcerting experiences of my entire 63 years of life. I found out there was as much political cowardice in the Gates Foundation as there is in the Washington State Legislature. They had a program officer who called me one morning and harangued me for 45 minutes to change the mission of the program to “target children.” The unsaid part of what she was saying was “Turn your backs in the adult population and just deal with children.”
So, that was just a really rude awakening. It ended up being a couple-year history of discussion with them. But basically there’s this guy named John Bowlby who did a report to the World Health Organization, a document called Maternal Care and Mental Health, and his point is, this is a quote: “If a community values its children it must cherish their parents.”
On the positive side there’s a small local foundation – about 30 million dollars in assets – and made up of a family of angels, literally. Based here in Seattle, the Lucky Seven Foundation. They gave us our first grant and then we built a relationship with them. We took the exact proposal that we submitted to Gates’ Northwest Programs and submitted to Lucky Seven, and they’ve continually given to us more and more every year. Right now we’re at least $128,000 away from the minimum place we want to be for 2011, but the flip side is that we’ve got 75 percent of the funding for this year that we need, and that’s thanks to Lucky Seven Foundation, and to Google Incorporated.
I could talk until I die of old age about Google and its employees, and I couldn’t say enough about them. During the holidays, Google employees donated about $10,000 through our website and Google Incorporated matched it dollar for dollar. In the last few months we’ve gotten $46,000 in grants from them through the Tides Foundation. I think we’re a month away from another round of funding from them.
And then unbelievably, Warren Buffett’s sister foundation, Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation wrote to us that they were interested in our program last July and we went through a couple months of negotiations with them and got a $150,000 grant. Doris Buffett, who I have not met personally, and Mitty Beal, her foundation’s executive director, are just incredible people. They help whole families, adults and parents, get their lives together.
So it’s been a slow, torturous process. We’re continually underfunded and our employees are underpaid to say the least, and we’re not accepting near as many students as we’d like to be helping, but we’re still here.
Could you talk a little about how you accept students and then what happens once they get in?
You know, as the demand has gotten greater and greater, and the program has gotten more well known in the prisons and outside the prisons, it’s become harder to get into the program and accepted to the point that when we’re in prisons and talking to prisoners, we tell them that it’s a lot like getting into NYU law school or Harvard. It’s really difficult. 700 men and women are coming out of Washington’s prisons every month, and the highest number we’ll be able to take on this year in our wildest dreams is about 70. Right now I think we’re helping 47 families statewide.
So a person applies to the program. If you go to our website and click the admissions link, you see the application is pretty simple – it’s just name, age, When are you getting out? Do you have children? But the Personal Statement requirement is a pretty tough essay, and it makes people look introspectively about where they’ve been in life and have they overcome things, and, if so, how? And that essay gets them an interview or not.
If they are lucky enough to get an interview, then we have a Scholarship Committee and they use a fairly sophisticated scoring grid that actually started at Seattle Education Access. I think we made it a lot more in-depth and a lot more complicated, and it addresses more issues, but it goes back to Polly Trout’s non-profit. There are six or seven people on the Scholarship Committee – I’m not on it because we’d be truly bankrupt if I was.
So there’s a psychologist, Corre Ferguson, and our director of student affairs, Jenna Melman, who has a LMSW from Columbia. And Dolphy Jordan who did 21 years in prison. So it’s a combination of psychologists, social workers, human services people, and former prisoners.
They sit down and they spend 45 minutes or an hour with somebody and try to determine, first they want to make sure, frankly, that we’re not being scammed for housing – which would be a totally OK thing to do. If I was homeless I don’t see anything wrong with trying to sell somebody on putting a roof over my head. But that’s not what we want to spend our money on unless somebody’s also genuinely interested in post-secondary education.
So we’re trying to determine if somebody’s genuinely interested in education and to what level are they motivated? Are they going to get distracted by addiction? If they are addicted, are they going to control their addiction? Are they involved in AA and NA? And so on.
And then the person leaves the interview and the Scholarship Committee, everybody’s going to have scored them on the scoring grid, and when it’s over they’re accepted or not, and then we go from there.
What percentage of people are you able to let in?
We maintain that data, but I don’t know what it is offhand. If you go back to two years ago when UW researchers presented outcome data about our success rates to the Washington State Senate, at that time I think we’d worked with 62 students out of about 282 applicants. So, not enough, obviously.
Less than 25 percent.
The flipside is that if you get into this program, you don’t go back to prison. We’ve had, in six years, we’ve had two people recidivate. Our recidivism rate is no worse than .018.
What does recidivate mean, exactly? Does it mean getting arrested again, or going back to prison?
The U.S. Department of Justice defines recidivism, I think, correctly. The State of Washington has this definition for recidivism that hides their failures. So under the DOJ, if you’re returned to prison for any reason – say a failed urine analysis causes your probation officer to violate you and you’re back in prison on a violation – you’ve recidivated. As far as I’m concerned, that’s true because in Washington you’re costing the taxpayers about $31,055 a year.
The way Washington State computes it, they say you can be back in prison – literally, you can come out of prison, start using heroin, meth, and crack all at the same time and chasing it with tequila and be blitzed out of your mind, and have a probation officer send you back to prison, and you’re back in the men’s prison or the women’s intake center and locked up and Washington would not count you as recidivating. In Washington you have to take it a step further – you have to commit a felony and be convicted of it and be in prison with a new felony conviction to be counted as recidivated. So the net result of it is WA basically has for quite a few years been able to report that around a third of prisoner’s recidivate within three years.
I was testifying in front of the Washington State Human Services Committee about the value of post-secondary education and I used 67.5 percent recidivism rate, which is the DOJ’s recidivism rate, and a Senator interrupted me and said, “I thought recidivism was 38 percent?” I told him what I just told you.
Right now I think the five-year recidivism rate in Washington is 43 percent. So if the Washington Department of Corrections reports the current rate of recidivism, they’re saying almost half the people released from the state’s prisons are returning to prison with one or more new felony convictions within five years. That’s ridiculous!
What really makes it ridiculous is they know how to stop recidivism. It’s easily done and done at a much lower cost than imprisoning someone, they just choose not to do it. I mean after these UW researchers delivered this outcome data report on our program to the Senate, this analysis started where they were trying to figure out why we were so successful while the state of Washington and the Department of Corrections was failing so abysmally.
What we learned was that it’s not so much a matter of post-secondary education, it’s a matter of just meeting the needs. You just meet the needs of former prisoners, especially in the first three months after release, and then for a slightly lesser degree for the ensuing nine months.
By the time you get them to the first day of the second year, you’ve almost totally flipped the odds that they’ll go back. And what happens is – these are Washington’s numbers – 72 percent of the people in Washington who will eventually recidivate do it in the first year, and 43 percent – almost half of that 72 percent – that are going to recidivate do it in the first three months.
When we’re in the prisons we tell people when you release, get your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your mother, some loved one, to handcuff your ass to some plumbing pipe or bed and not let you loose until the first day of the fourth month. If you can just stay safe and stay out of trouble for those first three months, you will have dramatically reduced the chances of returning to prison.
So during those three months you do exactly the opposite of what Washington does and what everybody else does: You give them adequate clothing, you give them adequate food, you help them meet court-ordered costs – they’re called LFOs, Legal Financial Obligations – you help them with mental illness, you help them battle addiction, just meet their basic legitimate frugal needs and they won’t go back. It’s just that simple. And you only have to do it intensively for three months and then to a lesser degree the ensuing nine months, but Washingtonians and members of the legislature and this worthless governor we have would prefer to not have safe communities and would prefer to spend $31,000 a year plus and having people locked up. It’s crazy!
Across the country now states are starting to look at letting prisoners out because of budget cuts. If that’s happening, is there more money going to these type of post-prison programs to stop people from going back?
No, they’ve been cut.
On my personal bulletin board – where I keep mementos or things that make sense to me or make me furious – there’s a newspaper article about this woman named Mary Rivas. In August 2006, she was released from the women’s prison that used to be up near Spokane in Medical Lake. She went to prison as an addict, her addiction wasn’t addressed, and she released as an addict, and she did exactly what Washingtonians, the governor, legislature and society here should have expected – she acted as an addict. She drove through Seattle about 80 miles-per-hour, crack-cocained out of her mind, and killed a Seattle police officer, who was sitting – his car wasn’t even running – a father of two, and killed him dead.
Frank Blethen, [the publisher of the Seattle Times], would want to say that she’s a horrible person and that was her fault. To me, it’s the fault of the governor and the legislature because they don’t fund programs that help people overcome addiction. And what’s happened since two Octobers ago is that the programs that were there are gone. But that prison had a therapeutic community which a prisoner could try and get into and maybe, and if they did get in, it would help them address their addiction. So this woman didn’t get into it and she came out addicted.
But a member of our current board of directors, Becky Heffling, did get into it and she gives it credit for saving her life. But when that prison closed, that therapeutic community was gone. The other minimum security women’s prison out in Belfair, it doesn’t have a therapeutic community.
Within five days of when Eldon Vail, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections, announced how he was going to meet the governor’s requirement that he was going to cut another $55 million from his budget, we were getting e-mail from educators in prison saying that they’re jobs were gone, they were laid off, and the positions cancelled. So what makes communities safe? Those programs are gone, they’re essentially gone.
And then this alternative program that was called something stupid like “Right Living” was being put in its place. Right now what they’ve got left is they’ve got pretend, fake programs that enable them to really perpetuate a lie and tell the electorate, voters in Washington, they’re doing something when in fact they are not. It’s not the fault of the Department of Corrections, it’s the fault of the Washington State Legislature and the governor. They’ll vote $11 billion for a floating bridge or $4 billion for a fucking tunnel, but they won’t pay for education that reduced recidivism by more than 50 percent, or they won’t pay for treatment for addiction or adequately help people who are seriously mentally ill because they’ll be targeted in elections for being “soft on crime” and voted out of office they fear.
If budget cuts mean that more people get out of prison, but there’s nothing to help them re-integrate, doesn’t that just lead to a revolving door?
There’s no question. What they’re doing guarantees that we won’t have safe communities.
I’m not in the business I’m in because I care about reducing recidivism – I care about offsetting the humanity that’s been denied to so many people. But if you want to look at it wisely – and you have to look at it from the conservative side as well as the progressive side – you want to help humans have their lives and their families, but you also want to have safe communities.
If you lock people up and then let them go untreated, you’re guaranteed you’re not going to have safe communities. You are guaranteed you won’t. That’s why here in Seattle you can pick up the paper almost every day and there’s another murder, another this, another that, or place broken into or burned down, all of the above. That’s happening, and generally the people that do that have previous convictions and clearly the state didn’t do what they needed to do when they had them locked up initially, because they’re coming out and doing it again.
The big misconception of the word recidivism is, people kind of have an “Oh, so what” attitude about it. They hear on the evening news or in the paper that someone recidivated, and it’s like, “Oh, so what, so someone went back to prison, so what?” The way to really understand that and report it is that one or more felony level crimes happened in someone’s community, resultant to which somebody went back to prison. So every time someone recidivates by Washington’s definition, that means a serious crime has happened in someone’s community in this state.
We’ve created this horrible legacy that’s self-perpetuating! You lock them up – I think the figure is 97 percent of people who go to prison come out. A couple years ago the average sentence was 20-24 months, so they don’t stay locked up very long. They come back out, no clothes, uneducated, sometimes addicted, sometimes mentally ill, sometimes mentally ill and addicted, with no futures and no hope of a future, and they act accordingly.
Even though programs like yours have shown excellent results, it doesn’t sound like there’s any real political support.
No. I realized how bad it was maybe four years ago. We had some horrible things that happened in prison that cost the state money and should never have happened – sexual assaults of female prisoners by DOC employees, crazy stuff. So, we worked hard to have an ombudsmen legislated to oversee the DOC. The secretary of the DOC actually put it in his budget and it got through the legislature, so there was $300,000-$400,000 from the legislature to the governor to create this ombudsmen.
I was sitting in Tully’s in Tacoma with a senior state senator and we had a Tacoma News Tribune in front of us, and the headline was that the governor [Christine Gregoire] had line-item vetoed the funding for the ombudsman. We started talking about it. She is friends with the governor, and when we talked about why it was vetoed, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Ari, Chris is so scared of being targeted for being soft in crime.” Verbatim.
So something that is badly needed that would protect the state and save money – the state wrote a check for over a million dollars to the women who were repeatedly sexually assaulted by DOC employees, the same cops, for years. If there had been an ombudsman that kind of thing would be stopped. It would save money, be the responsible thing to do, and it would protect human beings. But the governor’s reason for vetoing that bill was that she was scared of being perceived as soft on crime, scared of being attacked during elections.
One thing that is clear in your work is how it can be almost impossible for prisoners to navigate the system without guidance.
You come out of prison and if you don’t have some insane nonprofit like this to help you, you almost have no chance of making it. The proof of that is that more than two-thirds of people don’t, they return to prison.
It can be a black guy up in Everett who gets arrested on a racial profiling case that’s so egregious that six months later the prosecutor walks across the courtroom to the defense attorney that we got to help him pro bono and says, “This case is so clearly racial profiling that legal ethics will not allow me to argue against your Motion to Dismiss, I’m tossing the case.”
The fault lies with the taxpayers and the people they elect, and that’s a fact.
Here’s one other example – the first person we had in our program to recidivate, Terry Grant. His lawyer, who was the number two in the federal defenders office, asked us right before his release if we would accept him and help him when he got out. We agreed to, so we had a job waiting for him when he got out and got him into Pierce College. About a year later, he was Dean’s list – this guy who had been locked up for 20 years, alcoholic and addicted, he was Dean’s list.
But then about a year after he came out, at the end of this first year of college, his brother had done about 20 years also, and he came out. And about two months after his brother came out, the state gave his brother $1 million dollars in settlement for abuse that happened to him in foster care.
This is the kind of thing you’ll not see mainstream media reporting – they’re not going to report the stories behind people’s lives that lead to incarceration and imprisonment. But the story with this guy, Terry Grant, was that he was born in a middle class family up in Snohomish County. He was about a year and a half old, probably 40 years ago, and his stepfather went to his mother’s place of employment, shot her in the head, killed her, shot her employer in the head, killed her, turned the gun on himself and killed himself.
With the snap of a finger, Terry, one and a half, his brother, two and a half, they go from having a roof over their heads, middle-class American family, and a future, to their parents are gone and they’re in foster care. After about 5, 6, 8 years both of them, or Terry, fled foster care to get away from abuse to the streets, where he met alcohol and drugs, and that’s what led him to prison.
And two months after his brother got out, about a year after he got out, the state settles this O.K. Boy’s Ranch foster home claim, and Sean’s share of it was about $1 million bucks. Two boys, the most financial responsibility they’d had to deal with was how to spend their commissary, their 13 cents an hour they earned on ramen noodles, so they had no more idea how to handle a million dollars cash than the man in the moon, and in three months time, they went through $1 million dollars. Motorcycles, girls, gambling, drugs, blackout drunk, a million bucks. The money was gone, Terry convicted of a felony, and he’s in prison for at least another seven or eight years.
To me, that’s not Terry Grant’s fault, it’s the State of Washington’s fault for allowing what happened at O.K. Boy’s Ranch to happen that led to these two guys having a million bucks cash in their hands. In the Seattle Times article about it, there’s a lengthy scene where this eight-year-old boy standing in the office of this assistant foster home manager in Olympia and he’s bleeding from anal rape, an eight-year-old kid, and he’s asking for help. And this woman who’s the assistant director basically tells him to fuck off and go away, “It will get better, the bleeding will stop, go jump in the lake.” That high level of abuse took place.
By the way, politicians were involved. The O.K. Boys Ranch was the Olympia Kiwanis Club, and the members of the Olympia Kiwanis Club are members of the Washington State Legislature – they’re district attorneys, they’re assistant attorney generals, and this was their foster home, and so every time the police would come to them with stories about, “Oh, this little eight-year-old boy got raped,” these people, with their political power, would stop the investigations, and that’s in the newspaper article. They stopped it for years and years and years and years, these politicians who are still out in Olympia society and ought to be beat, every fucking one of them, allowed this abuse of children to go on and on and on.
Every single student we’ve ever met, there’s a story behind them landing in prison. And they’re sad stories – almost always, by the way, they really go back to some adult, or some set of parents, dragging kids into drug use and addiction at a really early age. Time and time again, it’s somebody’s dad had them out dealing, using at age 12, and if you’re an addict at age 12 and the person you idolize the most, your father, is buzzing around dealing and using, that’s the lifestyle you’re raised in.
And 18 percent of Washington’s prisoners are SMI, Seriously Mentally Ill. That’s not like, “I’m depressed today, I don’t feel like going to do the laundry,” that’s like chronic depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, it’s serious mental illness. 18 percent of Washington’s prisoners are SMI, and I think 35 percent of the cases in DOC involve drugs, and around 80 or 85 percent of prisoners have drugs in their lives. This is addiction and mental illness out of control and untreated, and parents leading people into lifestyles they can’t escape. I mean, if you’ve been using drugs since you were 10 or 12 years old, how the hell are you going to be 33 years old and be a good parent or be a responsible citizen or live safely in a community, how are you going to do that?
With the students you get in, considering that they have to write an application, are they especially motivated or self-selecting?
No. First of all, if the Scholarship Committee is looking at two equally qualified applicants and they believe one applicant can make it on his or her own, they won’t accept that person. They’ll save our dollars to use on someone who they think cannot make without assistance.
We have applications come in at about 10 to 13 a day, along those lines. The DOC told us last year from January 1 to October 25, we had 5,600 phone calls from prisoners coming into this office, on a toll free line that we pay for, by the way. So if people want to say that prisoners aren’t interested in a better life, they can kiss my ass, they’re full of shit. And we’ve got evidence to prove it – they are desperately seeking a better life, the state just doesn’t provide it, in fact refuses to provide it!
One of our employees, Dolphy Jordan, was in prison from age sixteen for first-degree murder. He was brought in by his probation officer, Jason Mackey. So Mackey walks Dolphy into our office from the work release center, sits him at the conference table, and he just straight up in front of Dolphy says, “Look, this guy has been locked up for 21 years, I don’t think there’s any way in hell he can make it without your help.” So we accepted him.
So what happens is that, until they meet us, maybe in a prison presentation, or see the flier that causes them to call the office and get an information packet sent to them, they think there’s no alternative to their past life. But we do two-and-a-half, three-hour presentations, and we’ll take 10, 12, 15 people into a prison. We won’t have white guys in suits telling prisoners that there’s a better life – we’ll have former prisoners, some of whom they know, making it real. If you’re locked up and you hear, let’s say a black woman raised on the [Tacoma] Hilltop, who’s about to get her Master’s Degree from Evergreen in Olympia, tell you, “Look, I lost 10 kids to the state” – true story – “sold drugs, used drugs, my arrest report at the Pierce County Jail is 100 pages long, faced serious time in the DOC, but since I got out I regained custody of nine of my kids, I’ve got my two-year degree at Tacoma Community College, I got my four-year degree at Tacoma, and I’m a year away from getting my Master’s Degree at Evergreen Olympia,” if you hear that from a black woman raised on the Hilltop, male or female, your thought process is going to be, “If she can do it, I can do it.” And you become a believer. And then the day you release your thinking pattern is 190,000 percent different than it would be if you were releasing with no hope of having a better future.
How many people have gone through the program?
You know, it’s more than 111. We’re a month away from having the exact number. But we know that there were 62 students as of when the UW researchers reported to the Senate two years ago, and we know that we have 48 or 49 students now, so if you just add those two numbers I think it’s 111. We’ve got a researcher figuring it out now, but it’s at least 111 that have gone through the program.
Is there any set length of time in the program?
No. For money reasons, there’s been some discussions that basically there should be. But if a student of ours is motivated and doing well, we’re going to stay with him for however long. And another part of it is if a student graduates and then has some needs, then we’ll continue to assist him.
So if you look at the video on our website of Becky, it’s a seven minute video that will make you cry. The story was that she was kidnapped in Walla Walla and locked in a house in Kennewick and repeatedly raped. Finally, she escaped, and she was just a middle-aged mom who’d never had a parking ticket in her life when that happened. She went into such crashing depression she was dysfunctional as an employee at the hospital, as a mom, as a wife, and she just went into this really deep depression. And then some quote unquote “friend” comes along who worked with her at the hospital, and so she can be quote-unquote “happy” again introduces her to meth. So then she got addicted to meth, and then she lost her job because she couldn’t function well as a nurse because she was using drugs, and then she didn’t have the money to buy the drugs she was addicted to, so she started manufacturing, she got a seven-year-sentence, went to prison, lost her kids, lost her marriage, lost her home, lost her freedom.
When she came out, we put her through Washington State University’s nursing school and she got her nursing license back, and we paid all of that. And she did so well on the practicum that the high-level nurse who managed the emergency room wanted to hire her and offered her a job. The week before she was going to start work at $26 an hour, maybe three years ago, the nurse called her back over to the hospital and said, “I’m sorry, we can’t employ you because you’re on a restriction list that the federal government keeps, because your conviction was drugs the feds won’t employ you and I’m sorry,” and they both sat there and cried, and she didn’t have the job.
So we went, got re-involved in her life, and we got [former governor and current U.S. Secretary of Commerce] Gary Locke, between being governor and going to Obama’s cabinet, he was working as an attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine, and we got him involved with helping Becky get her license back from the feds. Everything was in position where she could go to work in the hospital, and then the economy collapsed and there was a hiring freeze at the hospital, and then she got married. And the December when that video was filmed down in Kennewick, her husband was laid off so here they had like three kids, and it’s a couple of weeks before Christmas and her husband’s employer lays him off.
And I just, it was some kind of intuitive thing, I called her just before Christmas, and I asked, “How are you doing? Are you going to be able to give Christmas to your kids?” And she started sobbing. So the deal was that if her kids had a Christmas that year then they wouldn’t have had money for rent, and so we federal-expressed a check for $800 to her landlord, and we’ve done that a couple times since. Now, everything’s cool, she’s working, she likes her job, her husband’s gotten a good job that he likes, and she’s years past prison, she’s got a new baby. We stay involved as required I guess is the best way to put it.
I think the difference in what you do in your program is it’s just much more human than others that might try to get people through in eight weeks or whatever.
You know, this guy who’s a key person at Google in terms of the support we have from them, wrote this amazing e-mail to me two days ago. He was writing to another friend at Google, asking him to support the program, and he has this line in here, and I’ll just read it to you, he says: “Perhaps even more fundamentally, this organization transforms the lives of its students, people who have been shut out and had their humanity denied.”
That’s what Washington State does, that’s what the nation does, that’s what the mainstream media does – they shut people out, deny them their humanity and throw them in a trash pile as many times as they can get away with it!
And then he talks about the way we do it, he says: “It does this not through handouts, but through simply giving people the support they need to make it through a tough transition. Knowing that there are so many ways that so many of us can fall from grace, it is a great comfort to know that there are organizations such as this that are truly willing to support people through tough times.”
Are there other programs or people across the country that you look at as peers?
I don’t think so. You know, people call – I’ve got over 2,000 e-mails in my in-box right now, which is sad. Most of them are from people who are mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles of prisoners, they’re all from people who are desperately in need of help. We get them from New York and Ohio and Illinois and Texas and there’s people everywhere saying, “Do you help people in Oregon?” And the answer is no. “Do you help people in California, Texas, Ohio?” No, we don’t.
I had a gal who graduated from Vanderbilt research for us two summers ago, she researched looking for organizations that deliver what I think of as “wraparound” services. And in terms of bringing everything to the table that we bring, I don’t think there’s anybody. There’s housing providers, there’s people who will give you a bag of groceries if you’re starving, there’s mental health providers, but I don’t think there’s any organization in the country that does what we do. We’ve researched it and we’ve tried to find others in terms of the complete wraparound package, where we legitimately meet all of the legitimate frugal needs of a person to succeed, but I don’t think there’s anybody. And couple it with post-secondary education to provide the hope that causes people to believe they can have a different life and so on.
My last question for the moment. You’ve been doing this for five, six years, what have you learned?
The thing that just really makes me almost dangerously angry and almost horribly disappointed is that I’ve learned about legislative cowardice and political expediency and that it’s so powerful that these ass holes in Olympia and elsewhere are literally willing to let people die to protect their political positions. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s inconceivable to me that somebody would make decisions resultant to which people are going to have horrible lives or no lives and do it for no better reason than legislative cowardice and political expediency. That’s my overriding lesson, and as someone who has a degree in political science from the UW, it was a hell of an eye-opener.
Jenna, I’ll read what she wrote [Jenna Melman is the PPEP’s Director of Applicant and Student Affairs ]. She says:
“The power of education to help people see hope instead of hopelessness. The power education has to help people imagine the future as exciting rather than disappointing and overwhelming.”
“How important it is for people to have a base and a network of support.”
And then, maybe the best one:
“How incredibly capable, insightful , motivated and articulate most of our students are.”
And that’s what really rewarding about what we do. People that the legislature, the governor, people who vote, wheat famers in Chelan, Wenatchee and Spokane, recalcitrant, mean-spirited, people that just want to throw them in the trash heap, you know, we meet these people and find them to be incredible. I mean, really, as Jenna said, “capable, insightful, motivated, articulate.” Fabulous parents, fabulous family members, fabulous community members, it’s just incredible.