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Giving inmates another chance
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Mark EvertzIt seemed like an odd word to choose at first, but in the proper context, it spoke volumes.Michelle Therrell, a 25-year-old inmate at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, said she "fell"three years ago. For those not initiated in the lexicon of prison slang, Therrell isn’t talking about a fall from a chair or tumbling down a flight of stairs.She’s talking about a fall from grace. Therrell fell, she says, after a fight with a girl. She’s now incarcerated for manslaughter. Therrell has 13 more years to think about her crime and figure out where to go from here. She vows to make her time count – through gaining an education and counseling others about how to stay out of prison."I have to do something with my life,"she said. "I’m not going to sit here and waste my time. I have a chance to get out, get a better job and get more education. I’m going to take it."To give her and other inmates direction in mapping out a life plan, the Coffee Creek women’s correctional facility in Wilsonville partnered with Portland Community College’s Workforce Development Program in October of 2001. PCC is teaching inmates basic life skills and vocational skills so they can get back on their feet.Some might say, "Let them just sit in their cells."Enter Julie Kopet."What I say to people is of all of these people they are talking about, nearly 99 percent of them will get out and live in their communities,"said Kopet, director of the Workforce Development Corrections program. "Do you want them living in your community if we do nothing, or would you prefer those who have bettered themselves through education and are ready to be productive members of society??Kopet and program supporters point to the success of education programs in reducing inmate return rates. According to Kopet, Oregon has a 70-percent success rate with inmates who receive literacy skills and work-based education. That 70-percent success rate is among the best in the nation, she added. Currently, about 500 inmates each week are participating in some form of work-based, adult-based (ABE-GED) or computer training education at the new Coffee Creek facility, which opened in October 2001, or the Columbia River Correctional Institution. The county jails in the Portland metro area also contract with PCC for basic education and computer skills training. PCC Education Coordinator Shan Weggeland said this program and others like it strike at the heart of recidivism by building self-esteem and giving inmates a solid base of job skills to avoid making the same mistakes.She works with minimum-security inmates, assigning them to classes and assisting them in their transition to the outside with employment referrals and further education.Weggeland noted that the college program also works closely with drug and alcohol treatment staff, mental health counselors and security staff. Along with Weggeland, there are 18 other staff at the Coffee Creek facility who provide work-based education and vocational assistance. "I was meant to work here,"said Weggeland. "It is not always positive, but when good things happen, it’s pretty spectacular. It’s more challenging, but definitely more rewarding."Taryanne McIntosh pounds away on a keyboard in the Destinations Computer Lab, doctoring up her resume to prepare for the job hunt she’ll undertake next month when she is a free woman. She wants to become an apartment manager, using her Microsoft Word, Excel and basic computer skills to get ahead."This is the second time I’ve been down (incarcerated) for a long time, but it’s the first time I’ve taken an interest in my future,"McIntosh said. "I’ve gotten more out of (the classes at Coffee Creek) in a month than I have at other places in the last five years. The instructors were more into helping me and my future and were eager to do it."Coffee Creek Superintendent Joan Palmateer is glad to hear that instructors and inmates are getting so much out of this still budding program. She remarked that giving inmates the knowledge to turn their lives around isn’t only a good idea; it’s her duty to see that it happens."The future is about making these people better people and better parents so their kids don’t follow in their footsteps – otherwise we’ll have to keep building prisons,"she said. "People like Julie (Kopet) and the folks at PCC are making such a difference."