Post-Prison Education Project aims to change the lives of ex-prisoners when they get out — forever.
The Post-Prison Education Program has had some spectacular successes working with people coming out of prison over the past decade. But just as impressive are the ex-prisoners who achieve the kinds of positive lives others take for granted.
Violent crime is so much in the news lately that we could use a dose of optimism. In this case, it’s about helping people who’ve committed crime in the past so they don’t repeat. The program, which supports two bills before the Legislature with this aim in mind, is a reminder of what is possible.
Last week, I watched program staffers and some of the people they’ve helped give an informational presentation to law students at the University of Washington.
The privately funded nonprofit turns ex-prisoners into students, helping them gain access to higher education. One of its students spoke of his pride at enrolling in the UW. Staffers noted one student is studying at Seattle University’s law school as well, while another recently earned a degree in electrical engineering from Washington State University.
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Most people who’ve been in the program stay out of prison, hold jobs, parent their children and essentially become more responsible members of the community.
Isn’t that what we should want for anyone coming out of prison?
Several Post-Prison students spoke briefly about their experiences. One said that when he thought about getting out of prison, he thought, “I had to provide for my kids as a father, and I wasn’t going to fail,” he said. He only considered legal ways of doing that after he met Ari Kohn, the program’s founder.
The 35-year-old got out of prison in December and is enrolled in college now.
People in prison often don’t see the options many people take for granted, and there’s a lot they don’t know about navigating the world outside prison in ways that won’t land them back inside.
Kohn and staffers regularly visit prisons around the state to talk with prisoners about the power of education to transform lives. The program helps make that happen.
The program starts working with people before they get out. That work is as much about building trusting relationships as it is about conveying information or helping to deal with bureaucracies.
And when people come out, they need housing, work and sometimes legal help dealing with previous court issues.
Too many people are released from prison every year for the program to help all, so it focuses its limited resources on those most likely to offend again. And the program has different levels of assistance, depending on the needs of the individual student.
People who’ve gone through the program often volunteer to help others, and some, like David Lujano, make a career of steering young people away from the bad choices they made.
Lujano told the law students his greatest aspiration was to be a truck driver like his father. He got into gang life and didn’t think about doing better until the program helped him see he was capable of more.
Once on the outside, his record kept him from getting a place to live, which meant he’d be in violation of the terms of his release and sent back to prison. The program helped him find a place.
Now Lujano’s a street outreach supervisor for the YMCA in South King County and is a case manager for St. Vincent DePaul.
His transformation isn’t just good for him, it’s good for the people he’s helping and for the community, which will be a little safer, and will save money on incarceration.
Post-Prison is supporting two bills in the Legislature that aim to make success on the outside more likely. SB6260 calls for the state to provide postsecondary education in prison. SB6430 would ensure prisoners who need drug abuse or mental-health care have medical assistance without interruption when they get out.
It should be common sense that people who have a good education and who are physically and mentally healthy are more likely to get a job and less likely to return to prison.
If you agree, let your representatives know.