David Heimbigner just wants to reach “square one.”
The 40-year-old sits hunched over a notepad, quietly working on problems from an algebra textbook. His tutor, 25-year-old law student Pauline Zheng, periodically points to the page and compares remainders. They do this every Friday, two hours at a time, and Heimbigner has never missed a session.
Soft-spoken and polite, Heimbigner is not who comes to mind at the mention of a convict. Out since February, Heimbigner is studying to be a welder at South Seattle Community College. He hopes his end-of-degree internship will lead to a job, a place of his own and a vehicle.
“If you don’t have a job skill, you don’t have anything to offer anybody,” he said. “This is my very best shot.”
Heimbigner robbed a bank in his hometown of Ellensburg, Wash., when he was strung out on heroin, he said, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. He had struggled with drinking and drug abuse since his 20s, serving shorter sentences along the way, but this was his rock-bottom.
“The complete humiliation that I put myself through — I couldn’t accept it,” he said. “I’ve wasted 20 years of my life — that’s enough. I want a normal life.”
Thankfully, he is not trying to do this alone. The Post-Prison Education Program (PPEP) has vowed to help ex-convicts achieve that life through higher education, and tutoring is just a small part of it.
“We pay for housing, tuition, books, medication, everything they need to have: a clean-and-sober environment and a reason to work hard and live legally,” explained managing director Ari Kohn. “We’re the only program that does wrap-around service.”
PPEP’s official student clients are those “absolutely in need of intervention,” Kohn said. These tend to be people with lengthy family histories of incarcerations, drug abuse and mental illness.
Heimbigner is self-sufficient enough to progress without the program’s financial assistance and just uses its offices’ free services: tutoring, job searches, phone and Internet access. But he knows the dangers of recidivism well.
“When you get out, it’s the same as when you came back in,” he recalled. “You’re homeless. You have nothing going on for yourself. It’s just a vicious cycle.”
Kohn, a former convict himself, understands the ease of falling back into old habits when one’s most basic needs aren’t met. Once an applicant is accepted to the program, Kohn will do everything he can to keep them safe and in school.
“To save somebody that deserves to be saved — we’ll go to war for you,” he said.
A hard beginning
Kohn founded the Post-Prison Education Program in 2005. The idea was born of a whim but soon became an all-consuming passion for the 64-year-old Florida transplant. An acquaintance invited him to a welcome-home party for returning prisoners on Capitol Hill. The charity affair equipped guests with the basics: spare clothes and toiletries.
A former inmate took to the stage to give his thanks and tell his story. He was kind, eloquent and intelligent, Kohn recalled. He was also confident he’d be back in prison soon. After all, he’d been in and out of the system for more than 20 years, always lacking the tools to combat recidivism.
Kohn’s heart broke for him.
“If anything could have helped him put his life together, it was education,” Kohn said, and he was determined to figure out a way to deliver it. He called together three of his friends and professors at the University of Washington — he was completing his bachelor’s degree in Law, Societies and Justice at the time — and asked them to help “save a life.”
By March 29, 2006, everything was under way: the 501(c) paperwork was squared away, a tiny office on Third Avenue and Marion Street was rented and fund-raising for the organization had commenced.
“We were so naive then,” Kohn recalled. He said he had no idea of the extent of addiction and mental illness in the prison system or the power they held over a person. The first scholarship the PPEP awarded was in cash and was quickly spent fueling those sicknesses.
“It’s way more complicated than just scholarships,” he said. “We continue to learn from mistakes students make.”
But the years have shaped the PPEP into a very effective charity. In its six years of operation, the program has financially sponsored more than 100 ex-convicts to help them get an education and start over. Only two students in the program’s history have ever returned to prison. The less-than-2-percent recidivism rate is a staggering achievement, especially when compared with the state’s 45.9-percent readmission rate, released in the Department of Corrections’ statistics.
The program currently supports 42 people financially, to the tune of about $6,000 per person per year, and runs the Interaction/Transition house in the Central Area, a recent acquisition that’s threatening to put Kohn in the red. The majority of the individualized money is used on housing costs and legal fees, which add up fast. The PPEP has spent more than a million dollars on its clients since its inception.
Though the program receives funding — in the form of grants and community partnerships — from the Doris Buffet Foundation, Google and the Lucky Seven Foundation, Kohn struggles to maintain the organization’s budget every year: Most people don’t go out of their way to help ex-convicts, he said.
“We don’t represent a popular population, and we’re the ‘stupid’ nonprofit trying to help them,” he explained.
Heimbigner’s tutor, Zheng, lamented the prejudice. “These programs change people’s lives,” she said. “But people think investing in them means not being tough on crime. They don’t understand the ripple effect. Not supporting rehabilitation is just building the cycle.”
Though the program can hardly afford it, Kohn signed on two more students last week.
The PPEP frequently reaches out to potential students with in-prison presentations. Kohn assembles his current students, people who’ve achieved and overcome their obstacles, and takes them back behind bars to share their success stories with other inmates.
“White guys in suits can’t tell prisoners education is a possibility,” he explained.
A year and a half ago, Elizabeth Reed, 47, sat in on one of those presentations at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Wash. She was serving out her third prison sentence for selling drugs in Pierce County.
“They were all very happy,” she recalled of the ex-cons presenting. “Hope in prison is the one thing that’s missing. It’s so different when you hear something from someone who’s been in your shoes.”
Reed had turned to growing and selling marijuana when she couldn’t find a job after being laid off. It was easy money, and she had a talent for the business, she said: The prosecution called her “the weed queen of the West Coast” in court.
Kohn and his students inspired her to do something different this time around.
“Education was really the only thing I hadn’t tried,” she said. “But the next [conviction] was gonna be forever. Education [was] the key to changing recidivism.”
She signed up with the program the day after her release. After enrolling at Green River Community College, it became clear to Reed that she had a talent for writing and scholarship. This year, she was admitted to the Martin Family Foundation Honors Scholarship Program, a $10,000-a-year grant that will allow her to complete her bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington.
Though Reed did not need the PPEP’s financial assistance, the program’s sincere welcome and emotional support proved invaluable. “From the first minute, you start off being trusted,” she said. “It’s bizarre to us: being accepted for what we are without judgment. These are the people who understand the journey.”
Graduated students return to give back to the program “90 percent of the time,” according to Kohn. They become tutors, mentors, counselors and volunteer coordinators.
Even those who don’t work with the PPEP directly usually find careers in social services: drug counselors, nurses and so forth. Reed, for example, will pursue a master’s degree in public-interest law. She wants to help those wronged by the justice system.
Felise Kaio Jr. keeps kids off the street with dance. The Samoan ex-con was in and out of prison for years before joining the program. Kohn put him through Bellevue Community College.
Now, Kaio runs Kagaka Lua Entertainment, a program that educates and provides leadership development for at-risk youths by connecting them to Pacific Islander heritage with cultural dance and music that they perform all over the state. Kaio even hosts members of the group in his own home.
Kohn is pleased with, but not surprised, by his students’ choices. “You come out [of prison] with a huge passion to make damn sure that kids don’t follow in your path and make the same mistakes,” he explained. “Everybody here cares.”