Author: postprisonedu

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.

townhallpic

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.

THE PROBLEM

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.

THE GOAL

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.