Author: postprisonedu

Ginny Burton, Post-Prison Education Program Graduate, Student, former Employee, Volunteer, and Peer Counselor.

The way I remember it: December 15th, 2010, a nuclear explosion on tennis shoes burst into our office. The night before, I had received the following email from a member of our Board of Directors:

I texted you last night as I was sitting in a meeting with an amazing gal. 17-felony convictions, 2-months out of work release, staying clean and sober, working and trying to be a mom…She really wants to do some prison work. She really wants to go back into Purdy to tell the women how it is possible to have a life outside absent drugs and crime! She’s our kind of people Ari. Hungry and thirsty for an education and a better life…. Her name is Ginny.” 

Ten years later, Ginny’s mission is the same, but she has fortified her passion with degrees, honors, and scholarship. With greater strength and tenacity than I have seen from anyone during my 72 years of life, Ginny has been and continues to be a force for positive change. In many ways, she has become a legend.

In her interview with Hannah Myrick, Ginny speaks openly about her life, from childhood to prison, recovery, and scholarship. These experiences are the fuel for her work as a student, mother, aspiring politician and mentor to current and former prisoners. She sees viable new ways to change a system that politicians have allowed to destroy lives and families for generations — because since at least age six she has been caught up in it.

Having worked for Ginny the last 9-½ years, I could go on for pages and pages, but instead leave you with the following paragraph from a Letter or Recommendation I wrote to Yale University last year:

When Ginny applied for scholarship assistance she entitled her Personal Statement ‘Mother of 3, 3 Time Loser.’ A ‘loser’ she is not. Ginny Burton embodies a positive, impactful Leader for Change, modeling for former prisoners, prisoners, parents, government leaders, and everyone else who wants to take notice that moving past a horrific life, almost indescribable trauma, is possible.

We hope you’ll watch the video above, or look below to read Hannah talk with Ginny about her story and mission to transform the prison system.

*This interview has been edited and condensed*

Could you start off by telling me how you got involved with the Post-Prison Education Program?

Back in 2010, as a part of a 12 step fellowship, I met someone on the Post-Prison Education Program’s Board of Directors who gave me Ari’s phone number. Ari asked me to come into their office and he had all these grand ideas for my life. They convinced me that it was a good idea to go to college, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to be of service to other people. 

I was on a mission to change my life. So I walked out of that office, still not knowing what the Post-Prison Education Program was, but thinking “yeah I gotta start school now.” I quit my job and started school at Shoreline Community College.

What things did the Program provide to you that were helpful at the time?

At the point I met Ari had just gotten out from my third time in prison, and they were really present and available for me. I could call or go to the office and there was always somebody there, always someone with a lived experience. They supplemented my situation financially and provided tutoring and supplies for us to be successful in school. They helped me with the process of getting into school and communicating with financial aid, when I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. They provided get-togethers with other folks that were also in prison. If I needed anything I probably could have asked.

In a bio written about you by the University of Washington about the Truman Scholarship, you talk about how prisoners “often are released without having the skills they need to succeed.” Can you talk about what that means and what needs to be provided to get prisoners on that path to success?

We have to restructure the prison system and the way time is spent. This is the dream I’ve been contemplating for seven-plus years, and it’s what my Truman Scholarship Application is all about.

From the time somebody steps into prison there needs to be a very thorough assessment. If you look on the DOC website you’ll see their fancy chart that shows different programs, but those programs are sporadic, one dimensional and work with less than 5% of the population. What needs to be assessed is what is the person’s foundational learning? What does their education look like? What does their upbringing look like? What kind of household did they come from? How far did they get in school? How long have drugs and alcohol been in their life? Is there any job training that has ever occurred? Is there any type of violence in their history? Do they have children, so is parenting necessary? Have they had evictions and things like that, so are finance and budgeting classes necessary? Any sexual assault?

There needs to be group therapy, where people are talking about what caused them to come into prison and the other things in their lives. There needs to be drug and alcohol treatment. There needs to be anger management, domestic violence classes and sexual deviancy treatment (which exists but is very short lived). There needs to be education and job training that can be actually transferred out into the community once they’re released. Everyone would be mandated to participate in all of this programming. 

When a person gets out of prison they have to be able to take care of themselves economically and figure out how to navigate life, and that can be really challenging.

As a result, we would create a much safer community and the recidivism rate would systematically start to reduce. Granted, there’ll be people that reoffend, but everyone would still have access.

Where did your plan for all these different pieces of reforms come from?

I am probably your average prisoner. I grew up in a drug addicted home, where I was six years old when I started using drugs, so a lot of fundamental things were not given to me in the beginning of my life. I grew up with a very distorted sense of reality, like a lot of prisoners who grow up disconnected from their foundation.

These are the components that I’ve pieced together in my own life that have caused me to be successful. Those are the things that people are missing or avoiding dealing with. What I’ve sort of gathered is I’m somewhat of an anomaly, I’ve gained awareness that I needed help in a lot of ways, but that’s been an ongoing thing for me since I was young. And there’s a very small percentage of people who have that same awareness. 

The majority of people who are incarcerated are afflicted in a way that means they need to be repatterned, because we all function in patterns. Maybe you overeat, or you overshop, it’s working out, it’s sex, it’s drinking, everybody has their vices. But people that go to prison have vices that cause serious problems in their lives and make communities want to lock them up and throw away the key. Once that gavel is down on the desk people assume they’re ‘out of sight out of mind’ but people don’t really take into account the fact that 95% of them are getting out. If we want a safer community it is our job to be the village; it is our responsibility.

In 2016, I was a victim of domestic violence. My husband had relapsed and I was participating in the court process. I testified for him and against him, the state wanted to give him a life sentence.  That could have very easily happened, however, I recanted on part of my testimony and I thought that [a life sentence] was excessive. What he needed was help, not to be warehoused for the rest of his life, where he would go in and get out the same person. 

The prison system does not rehabilitate, and I’m able to be here to fight for his specific situation, but what about the other 18,300 people {incarcerated in Washington State}?

You talked about immediate assistance that can help post-release, like housing, but what are some of the more long term barriers former prisoners face that are important to address?

One of the things that is typically not addressed is addiction. One of the biggest coping mechanisms people have are drugs and alcohol, which were usually present when the person committed their crime. But most of the time they’re not participating in any sort of recovery on the inside. And relationships are usually the first drug a person puts in their life once they’re released because it’s inherent in the human being, we want to be connected to someone else. 

A lot of society doesn’t look at prisoners as vulnerable, but they’re very vulnerable. There is unidentified fear that transfers into ego and that ego usually shows up saying “I got this” and inside it says “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea how to catch this bus, and I’ve been locked up so long I don’t know how to use a phone.”

When I mentor people, I allow them to feel comfortable feeling vulnerable by communicating parts of my story. I talk about fear and I really emphasize my dependence on outside things to change the way I feel internally. 

Can you talk about your work in rehabilitation? You talk about working in Men’s Shelters, but what about your other related work in research, mentorship, etc.?

My first mentoring work was in 2008. I was getting ready to go back to prison and was attending Community Correctional Alternative Programming (CCAP), through the King County Jail. While I was waiting to go to prison they put me on day reporting, where I got really involved in the classes and got put aside with a small group of participants who would mentor some of the participants and work in advocacy. 

When I was in prison, some of the most impactful and meaningful moments were having a former prisoner come back with a program. It created a lot of hope for the potential of not ever having to go back again and of being able to change our lives. So when I met Ari, I started going into prisons and absolutely fell in love with going in and talking to my people. 

Around the time I started going into prisons with Ari, I ended up relapsing. When I got out of jail, PPEP paid for an attorney for me and that gave me an opportunity to go to drug court where I started volunteering in the office. I was talking to guys on the phone and going into more prisons and doing a lot of work with people who were getting out of prison.

That was super powerful for me because it assisted me in a really important part of my recovery. It allowed me to be of service in really meaningful ways.

Once I completed drug court I applied to Catholic Community Services and I got pulled into the agency where I started as an advocate in a women’s housing program. I ended up being hired as a peer support person at a behavioral health program and did that for about 13 months. Around then, in 2016, my husband relapsed, and all the sudden I was responsible for all of the bills, so I applied and chose a supervisor position where for three years I supervised three different programs, five different case managers and carried caseloads in those programs. It challenged me a lot.  

How did those positions change the path you were on, both for yourself and in serving others?

Back in 2009 when I was in prison there was a Church guy who came in and he prophesied over me and he said “you’re gonna make prisons a better place to live, and it’s not gonna happen from here.” As my life has unraveled since then, starting with meeting Ari and going into prisons, I would be reminded of that and I became very passionate about this stuff. 

In all of my jobs including PPEP, I got the opportunity to show up in people’s lives authentically as very much myself. Through training at CCS, and I learned how to not show up as a hardass, but from a trauma informed care perspective. I learned how to be really compassionate and look at people’s circumstances instead of their behaviors. It’s through this work that I got to learn how to be a better and stronger person.

I also got to participate in a lot of really interesting things with the county, the city and different portions and institutions that are clueless in terms of people’s lived experiences. In there, you’ve got a lot of people who’ve read some books and sit in these meetings and have no experience working with individuals. I was sitting in a meeting one day and I looked around and I asked myself “These are all a bunch of degree holding people, is this it for me? Is this what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life?” And the answer was no, {so in 2017 I applied to South Seattle, and in 2018 I would apply to UW where I’m currently a student}.

Even the things that have unraveled in my life headed me in that direction. I really feel like my life fed me a story that allows me to be a voice for other people that allows for a lot of change. But really it’s not about me, it’s about the people inside, it’s about the kids who are on their way, it’s about the families that are broken and lost and those that are in the foster system because their parents are incarcerated. There’s a huge part of society I want to mend. 

In a recent Facebook post you said: “If you are someone who is fearful of prisoners being released, have been the victim of a violent crime, know someone who was the victim of a violent crime, or think there should be tougher and longer sentences for crime, I would love to have a conversation with you. I am hoping to gain some insight and ask your opinion about some ideas I have. It is your opinion I am most interested in. I think you can help me with one of my big goals.” Can you tell me what that big goal is and what it is you’re aiming to talk through in those conversations?

Here’s the best way to describe how I often feel: if I walk into the best Ice Cream Shop in town and I tell all the patrons “This is the best ice cream shop in town you need to eat here!” They’d say “Yeah we know.” And that’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m saying “We need to restructure prison time!” and everyone says “Yeah we know.” But there’s a whole other part of society that says “They need to go to prison for the rest of their lives. This happened to me. What about me?” And those are the people I need to be having the conversations with.

The people who already believe me are not the ones I need to be talking to. 

In response to the post, I’ve had a couple people reach out. One person reached out with a really tragic story, and a person that did a lot of really terrible things is doing 20 years. So my conversation is about how that person would feel when 20 years is up, knowing that in prison, they didn’t do anything the whole time they were in there. What if these things I’m looking to implement were in place? Would they feel safer?

Over the course of the, let’s say, 5 years, where do these conversations you’re having over messenger need to go? They start online, hopefully eventually change the policy, but in what other arenas do we need to be having these hard conversations? 

That was a question I had to ask myself, is now that I’m having these conversations, now what? I need to figure out some objective questions that will tie into some research over the next 5 years. I want to be able to start advocating for these ideas in Olympia. I want to be able to use this work with people and groups who are already trying to implement these things in the system. I also want to see if I can get some of these people to tell their stories in Olympia and figure out how I can use this work to move forward politically.

When I have these conversations with people in the community I get a lot of “It’s not possible” and I usually walk away feeling very disheartened and feeling like I need to change my trajectory. Then I have a conversation with a friend who’s in work-release and just got out of prison. I start talking to him about my plan and it sort of reaffirms in me a feeling in my heart, this feeling of “this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

It’s really exciting that you’re able to do all of this work while at UW and have access to that network and research systems, combined with your life experiences that have lead you to this point.

I really wanted to go to UW and knew I would get there and network but I had no idea, in just 9 months, the connections I would make and the support I would have. It’s unbelievable.

Over the last four years, when the stuff happened with my husband, it was horrific. I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself. I didn’t trust myself, I was terrified and bruised. I couldn’t go to work. I posted about it, and people immediately responded with hate. Not in a way that was malicious, but because they loved me so much, and it really dawned on me in that moment “He doesn’t need hate, he needs help.” That moment allowed me to be softer with myself.

I started to participate in the things that made me feel well on a daily basis. I would pray, I would meditate, I would journal, I started working out and I mentally became a lot stronger. It changed my life. It just sort of reaffirmed for me that whatever I tell myself is the truth. If I just keep believing and I keep taking the steps forwards, it’s gonna happen. 

It is in all of our best interests for people to be able to rehabilitate. By the time we have someone who’s made it out of prison and into the UW, think about all they’ve got going for them and all that they’ve overcome. Think about that energy put to something really positive and what they might be able to do.”

– Ana Mari Cauce, University of Washington President

In 2013, the Post-Prison Education Program and University of Washington’s President Ana Mari Cauce sat with each other for the first time, beginning a conversation that would shape the lives of many of our students time and time again. As a team, we are constantly inspired by the opportunities Ana Mari creates for all academically qualified individuals to turn their lives around; prisoners, former prisoners and so many others.

In Winter 2012, a student of our program, was removed from a UW class. As a result of his removal, three former prisoners and our president Ari Kohn, met with Ana Mari. We talked about the danger of a recently introduced box on the UW application, that would require students to say if they had been convicted of a felony before applying. They shared the obstacles they faced reentering society, going through school, and the efforts they were making to create a better life for themselves and the world. 

This meeting would begin an inspired relationship between our program and Ana Mari. Two years later she would present as the keynote speaker at Monroe Correctional Complex and to this day she continues to advocate for former prisoners across all of UW’s campuses. 

She uses her leadership platform to make space for conversations, and finds new ways to break down stereotypes and narratives that often inhibit students’ success. She uses her power to learn the needs of the individual and uses those conversations to shape UW. She is a constant example in how larger institutions can pivot to listen to those they have historically left behind and our team could not be more grateful for her life philosophy, openness and dedication.

In our Q&A she touches on how experiences like her early work with homeless youth, and her Ph.D in psychology, concentrated in child clinical and community psychology, have shaped how she leads, and what she prioritizes for the larger UW community. Below is Hannah Myrick’s conversation with Ana Mari.

You’ve created support and rehabilitation pathways for many former prisoners at the University of Washington. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s influenced you in creating those pathways?

At the end of the day people who have been released from prison have paid the consequences for their actions, so what do we do? The research is clear, if you create a pathway to education, to a college degree, recidivism goes way down. 

I’ve done a lot of work with homeless youth and a number of the young people I work with did end up incarcerated. I don’t want to take responsibility away from anybody, but because it’s the easiest narrative to have in our heads, we tend to think that bad things are done by bad people. If that were the truth, the world would be simple. You could isolate the bad people and everything would be fine. But it’s not that simple. There are circumstances under which even the best of persons might do something bad.

I want to emphasize it is in all of our best interests for people to be able to rehabilitate. By the time we have someone who’s made it out of prison and into the UW, think about all they’ve got going for them and all that they’ve overcome. Think about that energy put to something really positive and what they might be able to do. 

Some people might say “Why are you helping them? What about my kid that’s having all these problems” and all of that’s true, but it’s not just about helping them. It’s about helping everybody, including them.

How do you respond to those that say “Why are you helping them? They’ve done bad things!”

Let’s be honest, we’ve all done bad things. Part of human nature is being capable of absolutely wonderful things, but in certain situations, all of us are capable of doing pretty rotten things too. 

There’s good reasons to help all of us. And I also want to be clear, I’m not talking about saying to someone who has just done something horrible “Hey! Come to the University of Washington.” These are people who are highly motivated, people who have done well in community college and are highly motivated to change their lives. So yes, in some cases they’ve done some terrible things, in some cases maybe less so, but they’ve paid their dues, spent their time in prison and they want to be rehabilitated. 

I firmly believe that everyone is owed a second, and third chance.

What does that look like on a larger institutional level?

It comes down to trying to keep the barriers to rehabilitation as low as possible. I think one of the big problems in society right now is the hollowing out of the middle class.  We need to be institutions that help with social mobility. 

There is absolutely no question, there’s something wrong with our criminal justice system. The sheer number of people we incarcerate makes absolutely no sense, and we’re not talking about a few people, but an awful lot of people. There is no question that they tend to be overrepresented amongst people who are low income. So I think we need to be aware of that, that it’s not a fair system. And if we’re going to be an engine of social mobility, this is a group that access includes. 

We wanted to make sure what happened with the student who was removed doesn’t happen again. We want folks in that situation to have the best possible learning experience. We can talk to the instructor beforehand, UW’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity also works with low-income students and often we can introduce particular instructors who have been particularly friendly and supportive. So at this point it’s not that we have something specific for people that have been incarcerated but we have a host of support services that we want to make sure and connect them with right away. 

How does the support UW offers former prisoners compare to other other educational institutions across the country? 

I would like to think that we are one of the leaders, but I would be very surprised if we’re the only. For example, we’re part of the Coalition App (a single application that allows you to apply to any of 150 higher education institutions), and played a leadership role to get the box off the application. Now the Common App doesn’t have it either, which is fabulous. 

The folks who are on the front lines are our community and technical colleges, since that’s usually the first stepping stone. I’m a community clinical psychologist so there’s an importance of “who are you as a community?” You know, we’re not just a bunch of disembodied brains.

Definitely. In your work with prisoners and former prisoners, and in providing second and third chances you seem to really prioritize furthering understanding and community building as well.

You know, people don’t go into teaching if they don’t care deeply. But, I think that one of the things that can be so difficult for folks coming out of incarceration is that all our sympathies as humans tend to go to the “victims.” What we forget is that almost everyone who has been incarcerated at some point or another has been a victim too. 

I remember when I first started working with homeless youth, I was so angry at their parents, because so many had been treated poorly. You often get angry at the parents for not protecting them and then I started meeting some of the parents and realized they had often been victims themselves, of abuse, or they’d been addicted to drugs. They’re lives had been pretty damn miserable. Then you realize you can’t be mad at them either. 

My brother was murdered by the Klan, and at one point when I was doing work with homeless youth, we started seeing skinheads. That was really hard for me. But there was one kid who was always hanging around and I finally talked to him. He was this young man who really had nothing in his life and this group had told him “yeah, but you’re white” and that was the one shred of pride he had. How could I hate him? Things are really complicated.

Can you give a brief background on the start and continuation of your relationship with the Post-Prison Education Program, and how it all ties into the origins of the “box” on the UW application? 

There was an incident related to a Post-Prison Education Program student, with whom I’ve now become close. I don’t know how, but it became known that he had a background as a sexual offender. People on campus were scared. There was a faculty member who didn’t want to teach. People were saying “I’ve had that experience in my life so I don’t want them in my class.” It was pretty terrible for everybody from the student himself, to the people who were in his class.

After talking to a number of people, my first thought was at admissions time if we could at least know who had been convicted of violent crimes, by including a box on the application we could have a situation like this never occur again.

I can’t remember how I met Ari, but he brought the student, and two others and we all had a conversation about their experiences as former prisoners. After talking to them I was convinced that simply having the box <on the application> would be discouraging and a disincentive. I talked to people who were prison advocates, but there was nothing that was as powerful as sitting down with these three young men and Ari. It’s not that I didn’t feel how important rehabilitation was before, but hearing their stories and the enormity of their obstacles, and how sincerely these young men were working to create a better life for themselves and for the world…I guess it’s one of those things you can read about, but there’s something about it being in front of you. 

What is the best way to communicate those complications and stories?

If you stop by Suzzallo Library, the Honors Program has an exhibit on homelessness that’s just beautiful. That’s an example of the real interest the program has in really digging into social justice issues. I think what’s so powerful about that exhibit is it makes homeless people real. 

Stereotyping is most likely part of our human nature. It makes a very complicated world simple, but I think that it’s very easy to hurt people when you see them as groups. It’s easy to hate prisoners, it’s easy to hate skinheads. Maybe not even to hate, but to dismiss, or to characterize in any way. 

I think part of what helps you get over the stereotypes of a group is meeting people. I sometimes post about incarcerated students here or there on Facebook so people can see that “This is a real person. Look at what they’re doing.” 

I’ve noticed the UW Honors Program does a lot of programming around Washington State’s Prisons. Is that by coincidence or a more conscious focus? 

I don’t think it’s ever been intentional but the current director Victoria Lawson has a lot of interest in social justice issues in general. 

Also, some of the previously incarcerated students we have are absolutely tremendous students in the Honors Program and take the program’s classes. I think you may know Ginny Burton is a finalist for the Truman.

Are you still in touch with some of those former students?

Absolutely. But, one of the things that’s hard for me about being in this position is having less student contact. The connections you make are very much person to person and there’s nothing more rewarding than being part of that young person or not so young person’s path. I think often they look to you as a mentor and how you help them, but also I view the world differently because of the experiences I share with students. They have taught me so much.

What is the Backstories series?

As an organization, we’ve learned the faces and stories of current and former prisoners are what most often leads people to understand how complex each individual in Washington State’s jails and prison system is. Prisoners are not one definable group. They are not the actions they committed, rather their lives are complex mixes of a larger history of abject poverty, addiction, mental illness, comorbidity, misunderstanding, and a large prison system that pushes them further into despair and recidivism.  We plan to spend considerable time interviewing people who bring to light the impacts of this system on individuals and their families. Defense attorneys, advocates, filmmakers, educators and our graduates and students themselves. These are the stories and perspectives that are buried, and these are the backstories we plan to spotlight. Check out our blog for some examples.

By Hannah Myrick

“It’s like once you get arrested your experiences of abuse and your history of being battered completely disappears.”

Cindene Pezzell, Legal Coordinator for NCDBW

As an organization, the Post-Prison Education Program has often worked with The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women (NCDBW), a national resource and advocacy center founded with the purpose “to work for justice for victims of battering charged with crimes where a history of abuse is relevant to their legal claim or defense.”

Their unique role is as the bridge builder between victims of battering charged with crimes, social scientists, prison advocates, criminal defense attorneys and community members. They help provide defense teams with defense strategies, locating skilled expert witnesses, providing support networks for victims of battering going through trials, and more.

“These partnerships can — and do — help develop broader and more active strategies that promote and increase safety and justice for battered women,” says their website. 

I sat down with NCBDW’s legal coordinator Cindene Pezzell to learn more about the importance of the organization’s work and the difficult and complicated world victims of battering accused with crimes face, all while navigating the legal system.

This interview has been edited and condensed

Q: Why did you start doing work at NCDBW?

While I was working at the public defender’s office I saw a lot of the ways that people’s oppressions launch them into the criminal legal system. Racism, poverty, any number of things. And sometimes it was because of somebody’s status as a domestic violence victim.

Abusers are so successful in leveraging the legal system as another tool against their abusive partners. Getting frivolous nonsense bullshit protection orders and then using them to haul victim’s into court over and over again.

When the national clearinghouse was hiring, I was really excited to have the opportunity to take this passion I have for criminal defense and narrow the focus and work on the kinds of cases I was seeing every single day in court. 

Q: Could you breakdown the layout of your team for me? Seems like you do a lot for the small number of people you have…

We are a tiny organization. Now there are three full time staff members, which includes our director Sue Othnoff, our Staff Attorney Quetita Cavero and me. In addition to me there are two senior legal consultants who both work part time and that’s it. 

Q: For a little background: What percentage of the incarcerated population in the US is women and of that percentage, how many are victims of abuse who have been charged with crimes?

When it comes to incarcerated women, there have been various studies done over the years, but when you look at different data sets you see a range. When you have the government conducting surveys of prisoners asking about their experiences of abuse you’ll get different answers than when you have trained, knowledgeable trauma researchers who are actually talking to prisoners.

The low estimates for the number of incarcerated women who have experienced abuse either as a child or an adult is around 50%.

The higher numbers (that come from a more nuanced look into people’s histories) ranges anywhere from 70-90%.

All those people that I’m talking about aren’t necessarily incarcerated as a direct result of their abuse (like the cases we work on). But still it’s there and a pathway for sure. [h1] 

Q: What are all the different ways that a battered woman’s situation is made more painful by the criminal justice process?

Anybody who gets charged with a crime is in the position to now have to navigate a very difficult system. But when you’re also trying to navigate and negotiate your own safety, it’s really important to have extra support in place because being a defendant makes victims even more vulnerable.

And there’s a lot of ways that happens. When the abusive partner is the complainant they’re going to have a lot of information and a lot of control over knowing where the defendant is or what they are or are not allowed to do on pretrial release. Having to report at a specific time, and a specific location, that little bit of information gives an abuser a lot of power. There’s also the power to threaten to make the case worse or to promise to not show up to court. 

Every time I talk to advocates about concrete strategies in advocating for victims facing criminal charges, knowing the little things is of incredible value to victims. Things like what door to go in, what to wear, where to sit in the courtroom, is the abusive partner going to be anywhere nearby, is the judge gonna expect them to say anything

Not having to seek out that information while you’re trying to survive day to day takes the survivors’ anxiety level down a couple notches.

Q: What is the perspective you’ve found as a national organization?

In light of the fact that we’re a national organization we work in all jurisdictions, but we won’t be the ones driving the bus because everything is local. You need to know what your courtroom is like, what your judge is like, what the local laws are like and that kind of thing.

But when we step back and look at a bigger picture you’re able to talk to attorney’s about trends you see. We’re able to share unique arguments that may have worked in one jurisdiction and seem like a good fit for another.

Q: Is there any building momentum behind NCDBW’s cause? Or more grassroots organizations popping up?

It’s kind of hard to get a fair picture of it in such an environment in scarcity of resources [h2] . I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of advocacy organizations and others who would like to be doing a lot more of this stuff and I think the energy’s there.

I think what we’ve seen recently is really grassroots organizations who are really able to leverage social media to raise awareness and gather support and resources for some of the victims. There’s people out there, for example the organization survived and punished, who have really brought attention to and garnered support and advocacy in a really different way that maybe wasn’t possible 30 years ago. 

We’ve also been seeing efforts, mostly on state levels, to do some sentencing reform for victims of battering. In the wake of NY passing their domestic survivor justice act we’re starting to see a kind of ripple effect. We can start to see the ways not only that victims stay out of prison but that those who are already there have a way to mitigate some of the harsh punishments that they’ve been dealt.

Q: On your website you talk about creating a support network for the women you support, can you talk about what that network looks like and why that’s so important?

I think the heart of that support network is local community based advocacy orgs. Whether that’s peer support, resources or housing or safety planning, we try to make those connections when we can. And one reason that we’re able to help with that is because we’re at the national level. You can see the forest and not just the trees. 

When somebody’s a defendant, things that are resources for victims in some communities are often not identified as resources for people who get charged. We’re able to see past a lot of those assumptions about the support that’s available to defendants. It’s like once you get arrested your experiences of abuse and your history of being battered completely disappears. 

Q: Where do you look to create change?

One thing we do is talk with people who are considering policy implementation or policy changes, to help identify the needs in their communities and what can be done to make changes happen.

We’re connected with so many colleagues who are out there doing the work that we are not positioned to do, like preventing the arrests in the first place. We try to help to the extent we can, supporting work going on in individual communities around arrest protocols and decisions and education about victims of battering who are charged with crimes. I think that kind of local work then creates change from the people instead of top down.

 [h1] In Washington, from 2009-2015, Women’s prison population grew while men’s prison population declined (source)

 [h2] The 2018 federal budget severely cut the aid for federal programs assisting survivors of sexual and domestic abuse.

“Over the course of 10 years, funding for these programs will drop 93 percent, from $460 million to $30 million. Cuts to other social safety-net programs will also reduce funding for other domestic violence services. For instance, the elimination of the $68 million Social Services Block Grant means that New York City alone will lose $17.8 million for city-run domestic violence services, including domestic violence shelter programs for 840 families and non-residential services for 1,900 abuse survivors.”  (source)

I’m Hannah Myrick and I’ll be doing some writing for the Post-Prison Education Program (I also wrote this first Q&A). I studied at the University of Washington and while there took a class that went to the Monroe Correctional Complex to help create a reentry class alongside a group of prisoners. The class opened my eyes to how those in the prison system are distanced from society and how much empathy and understanding is left on the sidelines. A couple years later, after interviewing Ari for an article for Real Change newspaper based out of Seattle, we continued to stay connected. Ari and I have talked a lot about how often people’s stories are discounted for their actions. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we all can learn by highlighting and writing more backstories from advocates, lawyers, students and many others.

Hear more from Pete about what you will learn from the “Biggest Lie Ever Told” on October 9th

Post-Prison Education Program asked Pete Earley for six take-away points you will gain from the October 9th Town Hall. Here are a few of those points :

1. What sort of seriously mentally ill individuals are ending up in our jails and prisons, which have become the largest caretakers of individuals with serious mental illnesses.

2. Why jails and prisons are inappropriate places for persons with serious mental illnesses who have committed crimes directly linked to those illnesses.

3. How progressive cities, including Seattle, have created jail diversion and other successful programs to divert sick persons out of incarceration and into treatment, saving tax dollars and reducing unnecessary incarceration. Newest concepts being put into action.

4. While successful, Seattle and other communities should have as their goals zero intercept between people who are sick and the criminal justice system. No one should have to be arrested to get help.

Innovative steps being taken to achieve zero intercept :

1. Federal efforts to provide help to those caught in the criminal justice system by changing federal payments to communities.

2. Tips on how you can help a loved one with a mental illness and a call for advocacy in your community.This will be explained by example and specifics, including the story of the author’s son, who ended up being arrested, tasered by police, incarcerated and finally recovered and is thriving.

See the newsletter!

This is why you need to be at Town Hall October 9th
How did we get to this point? 
What compelled us to reach out to Pete Earley asking him to fly in from Washington, D.C. to Key Note a Town Hall discussion the evening of October 9th? It was meeting a prisoner in 2010 who over the course of 10 imprisonments has spent 25 years in prison – not because he is a criminal, but because he comes from poverty and suffers serious mental illness.Each month, the state of Washington releases approximately 700 people from its prisons. These men and women seek a productive life on the outside. 

Yet, within three years, more than one-third wind up back in prison with one or more new felony convictions.
State policymakers, concerned about this cycle, have commissioned studies, convened task forces, and introduced legislation aimed at preventing people from reoffending. Nevertheless, the recidivism rate hasn’t gotten any better over the last decade, in fact, continues to increase dramatically.

Since 2005, the Post-Prison Education Program has changed the odds. 
Three-quarters of our students have been classified as high-risk by the corrections system — the category deemed most likely to recidivate. 48% of our high-risk students suffer serious mental illness. Nonetheless, of the students we have served, according to data audited by researchers from the University of Washington | Tacoma, only 8% have recidivated — a rate one-quarter of Washington State’s average.
Prison wasn’t the solution. It never is, and it never will be. When people who have long suffered serious mental illness leave prison and land in a well-knit safety net, they can build lives worth living for themselves, their families, and our communities.

Please join the Post-Prison Education Program, Pete Earley, and a distinguished panel at Town Hall Seattle Wednesday, October 9th to discuss problems and solutions and to pave the way for people to build lives worth living rather than spend their lives rotting in jails and prisons. 

Ari KohnFounder and PresidentPost-Prison Education Program

Pete Earley is a former Washington Post journalist and bestselling author. His book, “Crazy,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist, tells the story of Earley’s son, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and arrested during a manic episode. Earley put his investigative journalist skills to the test over the next five years, and uncovered a prison system ill-equipped to properly treat mental illness and quick to criminalize.

Pete Earley will speak on a panel at Seattle’s Town Hall on Wednesday, October 9th, at 7:30 PM, in conjunction with the Post Prison Education Program. Tickets can be purchased here.


Pete Earley, former Washington Post reporter, mental health advocate and bestselling author of “Crazy” and “The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison” will be joining Ari Kohn, founder and president of the Post-Prison Education Program and will educate and encourage you to learn more about the impact of mental illness on prisoners, those formerly incarcerated and highlight many personal battles in the criminal justice system. Show your support for reforming how prisoners are reintegrated into society and help raise awareness of this critical issue.

More about the Post-Prison Education Program:
The Program offers hope and create opportunity for men and women returning to society from prison by providing wraparound services centered on post-secondary education. Students are offered the tools and human support needed to find gainful, meaningful employment, and break free from cycles of hopelessness, inter-generational poverty and imprisonment, and to become leaders for change.We believe that recidivism is a solvable problem and the rate can be virtually zero. We hope to clarify why our organizations methods work instead of current mainstream public policy.

We must seek clarity, justice, and change for those engulfed in a worldwide silent epidemic: mental illness.

Ari Kohn runs the Post-Prison Education Program, which provides scholarships to former inmates and community mentorship while they earn degrees.

Their graduates have a recidivism rate of only 7.8%, compared to the Department of Correction’s average of 33.5%.

Recently, Facebook miscategorized the group as a political organization, preventing them from advertising one of their fundraising events on the platform. The mistake took months for Kohn to undo, and brings up questions about how Facebook has been watching for Russian interference since the 2016 election. How are stringent standards without seemingly much oversight affecting us on a community level?

Mission Statement:  The Post-Prison Education Program offers hope and creates opportunity for people returning to society by providing access to higher education. Imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people are offered the tools and human support they need to find gainful, meaningful employment, and break free from cycles of hopelessness, poverty, and imprisonment and become leaders for change.


In Washington State alone, over 8,200 prisoners are released into the community every year. Prisoners are released with little or no support, $40, medication to last two weeks (if suffering from mental illness) and one set of clothing. They have often accrued significant debt (Legal Financial Obligations); have the stigma of incarceration; are under educated and barred from employment opportunities, thus remaining in a cycle of inter-generational poverty, debt, and homelessness. It is for these reasons that 43% return to prison within the first five years with one or more new felony convictions. In 2008, of the 28,671 former prisoners actively supervised on probation, 3,867 were known to be homeless. The incarceration cost of one individual is $36,000 per year. However, the actual cost including arrest, prosecution, court fees, attorney fees, etc. total more than $500,000 of taxpayer money per person. The Post-Prison Education Program has proven that for $6,700 per person per annum, one can meet the legitimate needs of former prisoners, which is a significantly more cost-effective method of reducing recidivism, increasing public safety and curbing high costs to society.


of the Post-Prison Education Program is to dramatically reduce recidivism by harnessing the power of education and meeting the legitimate needs of former prisoners. Education opens the door to a living wage, clean and sober housing, empowered and responsible living and strengthened families—the most important factors in breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty and crime, thereby increasing community safety. The Post-Prison Education Program provides access to education and unwavering support through wrap around services including tuition, housing, groceries, daycare and intensive mentoring. The Program’s innovative approach provides extensive outreach in prisons and intensive support post-release.

OUR SOLUTION- the Post Prison Education Program

Studies show that two years of post-secondary education reduces the rate of recidivism by more than 50%. Through an Outcome Data analysis, University of Washington researchers determined the Program’s rate of recidivism to be .018 since its inception in 2006. Our less than 2% rate of recidivism is a testament to our proven methods. The Program only admits individuals who are at significant risk of recidivating based on their extensive prison sentences. The Post-Prison Education Program fights to create hope where there is none through inspiring presentations inside prisons and intensive support upon release. The Program mentors and guides students and their families to gain access to resources and to become sustainable and contributing members of society. Furthermore, our students tutor, mentor and volunteer to help others succeed in breaking the cycle of incarceration and create safer communities. The Program accomplishes its goals by meeting the legitimate frugal needs of former prisoners simultaneous to linking them with post-secondary education, building meaningful mentorship relationships, and delivering consequential support services whether they are housing, legal representation, mental health counseling, or tutoring. We accomplish these goals by spending only a fraction of the costs of prosecution and incarceration. The Program’s success not only dramatically reduces recidivism and increases public safety, but also ensures that students have stable jobs, strong families, and productive lives.