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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.

Attorney John R. (Jack) Connelly believes in fighting for the individual above all. In being a voice for the voiceless. He’s consistently been named one of the top lawyers in Washington State, where he’s practiced for 28 years, always for the plaintiff. At Connelly Law where he currently practices, he has taken on civil rights, wrongful death, governmental liability cases and more that have led to justice and second chance for many.

Around 1993, Connelly got involved in the OK Boys Ranch case, a group home in Olympia where the state sent boys who had been emotionally or physically abused, for treatment. But the ranch was a place of routine physical and sexual violence and abuse. After nearly 20 years, State regulators, the Ranch’s board of directors, the state attorney general, DSHS and many others, consistently ignored incidents which should have resulted in revocation of the home’s operating license. This work would redefine the direction of his career.

“It was a place where newcomers were ‘initiated’ with group beatings; where punishment included ‘open season,’ a sanctioned invitation for other kids to pummel an offending child; where the assistant director thought it was ‘fun’ for the boys to scramble for cigarettes tossed from an upstairs window; where, after all that, a child so young he needed help to make a phone call could run away and beg – unsuccessfully – to be taken anywhere but back to the O.K. Boys Ranch.” (Source: The Seattle Times)

The boys who lived through OK Boys Ranch were anywhere between the ages of 11 and 17 years old. It stayed open for 23 years from 1971 to 1994, meaning those boys could be anywhere from 37 to 66 now. Some of them found Jack Connelly and his firm, some of them ended up in prison. It’s impossible to track the whereabouts of all the estimated 200 to 300 boys who had gone through the OK Boys Ranch system. Around 75 of those, Connelly’s firm represented.

It makes me teary eyed,” Connelly said. “I still hear from a lot of them and they’re in varying degrees of success in their journeys.” 

The first settlement before Connelly joined the OK Boys Ranch case was around $22,000. The first settlement reached for 10 boys after Connelly joined the case, was around $5 million. By 2018, he and his firm had reached $77 million in settlements for the young boys (now men) who went through that system. Connelly worked on these cases for 13 years, until one of his fellow attorneys took over, and although they’ve asked the state to stop sending them cases after nearly 27 years, they still get new referrals and calls.  

We met to talk about his involvement in this case and how he has seen anger, trauma and abuse of power manifest itself in the kids who went through this system. We talked about what we need more of in society, what has changed between the first abuse case he took and now, and the importance of creating networks of support for his clients.

Can you start off by telling me about the cases your firm takes and that you yourself take?

I started out my practice back in 1981 and I found that the cases I liked working on were cases where I was representing people. Where someone needs a voice and you could stand up and be that voice for somebody who’s been victimized. We do a lot of abuse cases. We’ve done a number of these prison death cases. And we’ve done a number of cases with a number of people that are in prison who are injured. 

I started working on abuse cases around 1991, involving Al Williams, a high school coach up in Redmond who had abused a number of kids. It was one of the first abuse cases in the state of Washington. I don’t think people understood the ramifications of being sexually abused as a child. When he was caught and sentenced, he was only given five years. I think at that time, people didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but that case settled for $2.4 million and people were surprised it had settled at that level. Then around 1993 I was asked to step in and work with attorneys involved in the “OK Boys Ranch” case in Olympia.  We got involved and the abuse there was horrible and we found out the state was aware of what was going on, but wasn’t doing anything about it.  

I think people are much more attuned to it now. They’re much more understanding of the fact that it’s wrong, that the trauma is longstanding. There’s a lot of longterm effects of sexual abuse, but the thing that’s strongest is kids who are abused by a person that’s in a position of trust. That causes a tremendous amount of damage. A child grows up and loses the ability to trust. It affects his sexual interactions. It affects self esteem, self worth, self image. 

And a lot of times, they couldn’t even understand what had happened. They would act out, they would have problems, they’d be angry, frustrated. And it really wasn’t till they’re around age 25, sometimes even 40 or 50 years old, before they realized what had happened. And it really does have a lifelong impact. They’d be angry about their upbringing. They’d be angry about the abuse. And a lot of times that frustration and anger would come out and they’d do something that would wind up putting them in prison. 

And one of the sad things I noted is there are certain kids, and sometimes it’s subconscious, who would prefer to be in prison because you’ve got three meals a day, everything is regulated. You’re institutionalized.

I have had kids that would come out and steal a car and immediately plead guilty so they could get back into prison. 

What was the feeling for the men whose cases had been settled? Was there a sense of relief that their story was believed, or was there any sense of stress? 

It’s honestly different from relief. It’s vindication. It’s “I was believed. What happened to me was wrong and society recognized that it was wrong.” The money’s important because in some ways it’s a measure that what happened was very wrong, but the kids all dealt with it differently. We set up annuities for many of them and it will take care of them through their life. And then we had a number of kids whose fathers suddenly resurfaced and wanted to help them set up a business. One kid’s dad, who’d never been around, wanted him to help set up a Christmas tree business in Arizona for $400,000, and we couldn’t stop him, so he lost all that money. 

We set up a situation where with a third of the kids, we really helped them turn around their lives. About a third of them are kind of always working to turn their life around and about a third of them are trying but keep winding up in the prison system or in mental health institutions.

I’m actually dwelling more on the bad, but there’s also good stories where kids were able to recognize what had happened and use the money to set up a new life and get married, have kids, and, and do a little bit better. I would say all of them are affected by the abuse for the rest of their lives. But it’s like any of us, we’re all working to be better with our lives and so forth. 

Are men who lived through OK Boys Ranch constantly coming out of the woodwork?

They keep coming. We told the state about 10 years ago, that was our last case. That one resolved and then another case came in and we told him it was our last case. But we just have people that will call up because they ran into one of the kids in prison and the kid would tell them to call us. So they’re still out there. 

Is it hard to take on those similar cases of abuse throughout the state? To recognize larger institutions aren’t handling their jobs responsibly? 

It’s like you’re dancing with the devil. There’s a point where it’s hard to keep doing them because of the fact that you see how they tear down a human being and hurt them for life. 

So it falls on larger agencies or institutions to have greater diligence? What is the defense by those that simply aren’t doing their job?

Absolutely. I mean we take a lot of the cases against the Department of Social and Health Services and when you have a case against a DSHS, the basis for the case is that the DSHS knew about it and didn’t do anything about it. It’s always amazing when you look at their records and you find out they were aware of things, but they didn’t really investigate. They didn’t really step forward to help kids. And that’s the agency that we’ve set up as the group to do that job. 

We have taken on the argument from the DSHS that “The case worker has so many cases they don’t have time to look at each one.”  But I have a very healthy skepticism because we’re always finding that many of these case workers’ caseloads aren’t that big. There’s no reason that they couldn’t have done the investigation that was warranted. And we find that with the DOC cases too. We actually took on a few cases where we looked at their actual caseload and if they were doing their jobs. They weren’t. 

Do you get referrals from past clients who are inside prisons?

It can be hard to take cases from inside the prisons. Where I feel bad is the medical treatment inside prisons is really bad, but medical malpractice cases are really expensive and of course you can’t ask a prisoner to pay for those. You still have juries where if someone has committed a horrible crime, they kind of hold it against them. 

We took one for a prisoner who started dying in prison after being diagnosed with Hepatitis and his roommate kept telling them he urgently needs help, but they wouldn’t do anything for him. Eventually he died and we settled that one for a million dollars. As we were going in there, the state was telling us that no prison death case had ever been over $200,000. They said it should be a smaller settlement because it’s a prison death. 

We’re getting an amazing number of police beating people up, where they’ll have a small infraction and the police just go crazy. We get a lot of police shooting cases, where I think it could be dessecalated but people are much quicker to shoot nowadays. I don’t know what’s going on with the police but there just seems to be such anger. 

As a society, in your opinion, what do we need to be offering more of? 

I don’t want to set up a system where you have victims running around saying “take care of me,” and I always emphasize that in the courtroom and to the people I represent. You don’t want people to be permanent victims, you want them to work to overcome the difficulties they’ve had in life. 

I really think we need more counseling. Right now we’re looking at a time where mental health counseling and treatment is needed. Because of the homeless situation in Seattle and around the state we really need a system that is set up to counsel, treat and house people that are homeless and mentally ill. I think the statement that “a society is judged by how they take care of their least fortunate” is applicable.  We need to figure it out. We’re looking in Pierce County at this tax about whether we pass mental health treatment (and it’s pretty low) and it hasn’t passed yet. We need it. 

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.

“To think I’d have Post-Prison Education Program helping me on the street, it changed my situation and it made it more palatable. I’ve never had anybody help me on the outside before, because of my choices and how I acted. I haven’t had that support in 12 years and it’s really incredible.”

Travis, on being imprisoned amid COVID-19 and having the Post-Prison Education Program working for him, from our most recent newsletter

Last Thanksgiving, we met Travis inside the Washington State Penitentiary. For months since, we have worked for him unendingly as he prepared for release into a world devastated by COVID-19 ─ a process that has proven to be an unpredictable rollercoaster.

Travis’ original housing plan fell through when the transition house he expected to live in voted collectively to refuse new tenants, a needed measure to support two immunocompromised residents. One of our staff, Taylor Buck, turned the world upside down, leaving no stone unturned to find alternative housing within 48 hours. One week later, Ari drove to Shelton to pick Travis up from the Department of Corrections’ Washington Corrections Center and from there to Bellingham to begin a new life.

This level of support is uncommon for most prisoners, who all too often are given only $40 and the clothes on their back as they release into nothingness (no job, no clothing, no groceries, no money, no hope). In reality, they most often need at least $1,500 in financial support during their first two days in order to establish a stable base (housing, groceries, bus passes, clothes, etc., etc.).

Gov. Jay Inslee recently announced his plan to release 1,100 prisoners. It is unclear which of those people – if any – will have adequate support following release. Travis’ experience brought to light the question, “Will we be releasing people into nothingness, with nowhere to go, exacerbating problems with community health care systems, homeless services and housing providers?”

We know conditions inside Washington State prisons and beyond are increasingly dangerous, and that it is critical that the Department of Corrections release the medically vulnerable and those nearing the end of their sentence. To succeed, those who are released must have meaningful support, support Washington State has given no indication of providing.

The Post-Prison Education Program is working harder than ever to support applicants and students faced with the effects of COVID-19. Colleges have moved online, public transportation is limited, jobs are hard to find, and in-person connection, as we all know, is difficult. Nevertheless, as our students face massive barriers we continue to offer significant support and resources. Recently, we worked with the Washington State Department of Corrections to move 12 racks with 254 suits from our clothing room to the Washington Corrections Center and are in the process of moving baby and children’s clothes donated by Google employees in Kirkland, Washington for the women in the baby program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Supporting current and former prisoners during this time continues to be our mission, day in and day out. It is something we cannot do without your help. Reentry support for those released is more important now than ever. Travis’ story in the recent Crosscut Op-Ed makes it clear releasing prisoners with wholly inadequate resources is a bad idea for everyone, all the way around.

With your support, we will continue to deliver the wraparound services needed for current and former prisoners to build lives worth living for themselves and their families. Doing so has never been more important than now.

Two days ago, The News Tribune published a James Drew article in regard to a Washington State Supreme Court Hearing in which Columbia Legal Services asked for a Writ of Mandamus for the release of Washington State prisoners exposed to Coronavirus [COVID-19]. Drew’s article is a see-through example of how irresponsible reporting is dangerous for a public looking for truth and understanding. Taylor Buck, Post-Prison Education Program, emailed the following response.

James Drew,

I’m writing in response to your article, “State, inmates’ attorney clash over COVID-19 early release plan.”State, inmates’ attorney clash over COVID-19 early release plan”. More specifically, I’m writing in response to the article’s biased, incomplete picture of the issues at hand. 

Fear mongering and misrepresentation are common ways media perpetuate fear of prisoners and misunderstanding of our prison system, and this article is a blatant example. It fails us as readers and citizens. Your article does not facilitate active, engaged citizenship. Instead it further stigmatizes an already disenfranchised population.

I’ll start at the end, with your reference to the Isaac Zamora case. You give no context for the case and refer only to fear of his potential release. Yet the facts of the Zamora case make unequivocally clear that the murders committed by Isaac Zamora arose from the failures of Washington State and Christine Gregoire’s administration to adequately and professionally address one of Washington State’s most serious issues: serious mental illness.

To exclusively focus on the purported fear that someone “violent” be freed simplifies a complex issue. The use of the word “rampage” further promotes sensationalism over sound information. In reality, it is possible to both support / protect victims of terrible crimes and grant humanity to those who did the crime. 

Later in the article, you quote state representative Jim Walsh:
This lawsuit is an outrage. It is a radical, anarchistic public policy agenda … that’s using the COVID outbreak to push this radical agenda to de-populate the prisons in Washington. To say it’s not good policy is an understatement. It’s disastrous public policy.

To quote such unfounded, inflammatory language is weak and harmful journalism. There are no claims of anarchism in this petition, nor is there any indication that anyone involved in these arguments is “using the COVID outbreak to push [a] radical agenda.” Including this quote serves only to fear monger, sensationalizing the issue at hand and dehumanizing those whose lives are at stake without providing any supporting information….

READ MORE from our newsletter, here

“’What if we had a system in place that was ready to support people once they were released and had a plan to respond?’ The coronavirus outbreak, for all the damage it’s caused, is a chance to step back and evaluate the cracks left by the criminal justice system, and stop people from slipping through them.” –WIRED article

Thank you for your ongoing support of the Post-Prison Education Program.  We hope you and your family are safe and healthy.

In response to the recent development of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Post-Prison Education Program is following the recommendations of the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and state and local authorities. Staff are working remotely and are accessible via email, phone, and remote meeting technologies (like Cisco Webex and Google Hangouts).

In the summer of 2005, a group of University of Washington faculty, administrators, and alums planted the seeds of the Post-Prison Education Program. We have gone on to serve imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people by offering the tools and human support they need to access higher education, find meaningful employment, break free from cycles of hopelessness, poverty, and imprisonment, and become leaders for change.

Fifteen years later, our Mission continues. We are committed to fighting and adapting to these challenging times. Please know that we stand together with you, current and former prisoners, allies, applicants to our Program, students, and families.  We will continue to stand up against mass incarceration and for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people’s rights to build the lives they want.  

The services we offer are key to the support prisoners and former prisoners depend on to survive and succeed. This is especially true as schooling moves online, in-person support networks dwindle,  and unemployment is the new normal. In the face of COVID-19, prisoners and former prisoners need help; Reentry is harder now-more than ever. That reentry requires more support and resources than our state has. No one should be left behind.  We will do everything we can to ensure they are not..

Be Safe!  Stay Healthy!  Continue!

Ari Kohn, President

On COVID-19 in Jails and Prisons

COVID-19 is bringing immediate clarity to the ways America’s jail and prison populations are forgotten and mistreated. Educating ourselves on what’s happening inside can help us be better advocates, activists, and society members. 

As of April 8, six Washington prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19. Hand sanitizer is treated as contraband. Soap, paper towels and toilet paper are often inaccessible. 40 percent of prisoners suffer from chronic health conditions like asthma, heart-related problems, diabetes, etc. And with visits currently banned, isolation is the norm. If nothing changes, combining these factors in an environment where it’s nearly impossible to distance yourself will make the prevention of the rapid spread of this epidemic nearly impossible. 

We need leaders to take action now to protect one of our nation’s most vulnerable populations by releasing prisoners already close to the end of their sentence, or with serious medical health conditions. Several states have already done so. Here’s a letter we sent  to Governor Jay Inslee, with the help of the Justice Collaborative, calling for immediate action. 

If you’re looking for ways you can help in addition to donating:

If you know someone currently incarcerated, you can send them this toolkit on how they can protect themselves. Sign this petition, ACLU-WA petition, petition to the CDC demanding expanded access to healthcare in their correctional/detention facilities, and follow phone and email scripts here that implore Washington State’s Department of Corrections and Governor Inslee to take immediate action.

Also, follow us on twitter and instagram for live updates. We will do our best to keep updating this website accordingly.

Want to know more?

Buzzfeed, Letters from 2 Inmates

New Yorker, How Prisons and Jails can Respond

Mental Health and Addiction in the time of social distancing, Effort to release inmates at risk in Washington underway

If you have more questions about what you can do to help, want suggestions on more you can read about COVID-19 in jails and prisons, are looking for resources to help someone currently incarcerated, or more, please let us know. Visit our contact page or email directly

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.