New College Graduate on Post Prison Education Program:
I met Chris Jones as he entered Jillian's Billiards Club surrounded by family and friends. We were there to celebrate his acceptance of an Associate of Science degree earlier that afternoon from North Seattle Community College.
Ari Kohn, Founder of Post Prison Education Program (PPEP) introduced us and Chris led me to a table at the edge of the party to share reflections on his transition from prison with the help of that program. A Phi Theta Kappa key glinted on his lapel as if releasing a tiny wattage of his tremendous energy.
There was in the room a sense of celebration of Chris Jones as a person, his hard-won success in moving past active addiction, the spiritual awakening in prison that had transformed his world view, his academic honors (a 3.71 grade point average in a challenging science curriculum), the honor of delivering one of the student addresses at the graduation ceremony that day, his volunteer work as a tutor to other PPEP students, and his new enrollment in the Electrical Engineering program of Washington State University.
This set of accomplishments contrasts starkly with an image he shared in our conversation: before his last incarceration, in a moment that I imagined as a culmination of the physical abuse, traumatic loss, addiction, crime, and homelessness of his young life to that point, he lay unconscious on the floor of the abandoned house that he and his girlfriend were living in at the time, near death from an overdose, in total surrender to his addiction.
"Lucky for me, I ended up in prison" (1)
Prison may have given Chris the time and space to survive. But it couldn't release him from the dilemma he faced as his time behind bars came to an end and he neared re-entry into the community. Chris' felony record meant that he would be barred from most opportunities for employment and education -- just when his need for those opportunities was greatest. This is a dilemma he shares with about 9,000 other Washingtonians who re-enter society from behind bars each year.
Much of this exclusion is legally enshrined. In 1994 a federal law made federal and state prison inmates ineligible for Pell Grants to fund higher education. In 1995, Washington's legislature, against the advice of the Department of Corrections, prohibited state money from being spent on college-level courses for inmates. The aim was to discourage crime. The indirect result has been, tragically, more crime; subsequent research has established that higher education is one of the most cost-effective crime prevention investments available.
The first few risky days of freedom
Without Post-Prison Education funding, there would have been no college for Chris Jones. But this funding alone, without the other help PPEP extended, was not enough.
Despite his years of self-improvement and struggle, his promise, intelligence, energy and ambition to help himself and others, Chris needed PPEP's specific approach to successfully navigate his first few weeks of freedom. As happens to so many who leave prison full of hope, he was tripped up by a technical violation before he had barely begun. As Chris tells it, he had been using Close-Up toothpaste during his work release placement. The product had been made available by staff working in the home and so he had not known it was prohibited by DOC for its SD alcohol content. Chris' community corrections officer gave him an infraction for use of the product. Chris argued with the officer -- resulting in an additional infraction. And he was ordered back to prison before he could attend even his first class. If PPEP had not intervened, Chris would have ended up back in prison, instead of college.
Within hours, Ari Kohn had connected with higher-level administrators in the Department of Corrections (DOC), explaining that PPEP would lose the $1,400 it had invested in getting their new student started. DOC administrators quickly set up a meeting with the parties involved and, with Chris accepting responsibility for his confrontational behavior, they reversed the remand to prison contingent on his future compliance.
PPEP investment in Chris and DOC willingness to give the program a chance, had miraculously saved his seat in class.
The PPEP model: Outcome-oriented
PPEP adopted its model of investment in the individual person from Seattle Education Access. The goal is not to fund college credits per se -- but to give students their best chance to overcome all financial and social barriers that stand between them and a degree. This definition of success -- how well each student meets his or her goals rather than how many credits are funded or students served -- represents an evolution from traditional social program benchmarks. As if applying lessons from the outcome-based movement in education, PPEP's focus is on actual success from the perspective of the people served: the students who want degrees and community members who want safer streets.
For each student accepted by PPEP, a budget is created before he or she is released. This ensures that all essential needs will be met, including housing, food, and books. Contact begins in the first few hours after release. Students regularly talk with PPEP staff by phone and often come into the office to meet with them. On an ongoing basis, they receive tutoring, academic advising, career counseling, access to computers, advocacy with community and public agencies, and, generally, all encouragement and support that the staff, volunteers, and other students can provide. PPEP is on the spot, exactly where it is needed as otherwise fatal challenges to fragile new beginnings arise.
For many people coming out of prison, this investment in their welfare may be a form of mentoring in itself, a demonstration felt at the deepest level - that the life and potential of an individual human being can be truly valued. It is a life-affirming lesson: "people matter" - that holds promise to counterbalance lessons of abandonment taught to those who endure early years of abuse, loss and traumatic street life. A phrase Chris Jones used in our conversation may sum it up: "I got invested in."
The continual battle for funding a program that reduces crime and saves money
A recent Washington Department of Corrections article, In Fifth Year, DOC Partnership Shows Remarkable Success, features PPEP student Dolphy Jordan, who also appears in a photo in this story. The DOC article attests to the public safety results of PPEP. In a state with a 40% recidivism rate, PPEP graduates have a 0% recidivism rate. The author notes that PPEP accepts only higher-risk applicants.
Recent research confirms that college education for those who are incarcerated and recently incarcerated is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce crime. (2) A legislatively-funded study by Washington State Institute for Public Policy, for example, shows that, for every dollar invested in higher education for people in prison, taxpayers and crime victims save $12. Preliminary results for a University of Washington study on PPEP's effectiveness found a 0% recidivism rate for the program's participants. (3)
PPEP founder, Ari Kohn, previously incarcerated himself, personally funded the first years of the program with his own and his family's savings. Since the program's inception, Kohn has intensively lobbied for state and foundation funding to sustain PPEP as his personal funds have been increasingly depleted. Legislative funding has not come through. But increasing numbers of grants from foundations have, so far, been sufficient to cover existing and incoming students at the current level.
Hundreds of applicants for 36 spots
Meanwhile, compared with PPEP's current caseload of 36 students, hundreds of applications, many of them for students who would be eligible if funds were available, are denied. Maintaining funding for the current group of students, plus a group of 24 or more new students each year, has required a continual creative outpouring of energy. At one point, when promised funding was a week late in arriving, PPEP staff suspended their own pay so that student rents could be paid. Current state inmates have also contributed. A December, 2009 letter from the Correctional Program Manager at Monroe notes:
"People congratulate me for being caring", Ari said as we talked at Jillians. "They don't understand that I'm not driven by caring. I'm driven by frustration and anger. I see how things can be different - how they should be different." It is difficult to not conclude, watching Ari celebrate Chris' graduation and hearing him talk about the achievements of other PPEP students, that he is also driven by a sense of joy in the success and happiness of the students served by PPEP.
A felony conviction creates new barriers to education and employment that breed more poverty, addiction, and crime. It's in the public interest to support programs like PPEP. It's a matter of practical compassion -- for those who can reclaim their lives after committing crimes and serving their time, for their children, and for all people at risk of being victimized by crimes that common-sense investments can avert.
|< Mormons: Stuck at the front of the parade in front of God and everybody. | 5th CD Congressional Race >|