How Washington State Department of Corrections Becomes a Client of the Michael G. Santos Foundation and Partners with The Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program
Michael Colwell, an Assistant Director of the Washington State Department of Corrections, helped to fulfill a dream for me. The dream began while I was locked inside of the Pierce County Jail, more than 25 years ago. I was in my early 20s then, in 1987, staring down the long end of a prison sentence that would keep me confined for decades. I had a vision. If I followed a principled path, working consistently:
to educate myself
to contribute to society, and
to build a support network,
I believed that I could walk out of prison with a skillset that would allow me to add value to society. In time, that vision grew into an aspiration that included making a positive contribution to the lives of people who served time in prison. With Michael Colwell’s help, over the past two days, on Thursday and Friday in late January 2014, that vision became a reality. Let me share some details on how The Washington State Department of Corrections became a valued client of The Michael G. Santos Foundation.
Carole’s daughter, Nichole, introduced me to her boyfriend Michael Richardson during a visit last November. Both Nichole and Michael recently graduated from Washington State University. While they visited with us, I told Michael about the work that my partner Justin and I were doing to bring more awareness to our nation’s prison system. I offered Michael an opportunity to work toward earning a commission: If he distributed marketing materials that I created, and those materials generated a sale, I would pay him a commission for his effort. Essentially, I wanted him to send my marketing brochures to universities that might retain me for keynote lectures on the subject of mass incarceration. Michael agreed and I gave him a brochure that I designed to distribute for university audiences.
Unbeknownst to me, Michael took the initiative of reaching out to other prospective markets. He sent a brochure to the Department of Corrections in Washington State. Soon thereafter, I received a message on my website from Michael Colwell, an Assistant Director who led prison industries.
Wow! Justin and I had been working to build more awareness about our work. We lacked financial resources and a marketing team, but we created partnership agreements with different agencies. Organizations like the National Guard, Orange County Office of Education, The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall became our first clients. But I hoped to develop relationships with statewide prison systems, which was why that initial inquiry from Mr. Colwell at the Washington State Department of Corrections thrilled me.
After an extensive exchange of emails and phone calls between our organization and Mr. Colwell, we settled on a two-day meeting for Thursday, January 23 and Friday January 24. Carole and I left our home at 3:30 am so that we could make our early morning flight out of San Francisco to SeaTac. The flight would be my first return to Washington State since the day that federal marshals locked chains around me inside of the Pierce County Jail and led me away.
I appreciated the memories of Seattle as soon as our plane landed. Carole and I picked up our rental car and we began our long drive to Tumwater, about 90 minutes south of the airport. After Carole and I checked into the hotel, Michael Colwell picked me up. Meeting him felt like a highlight for me. After all, Mr. Colwell served at the highest level of the state’s prison system while I was a man who had only been released from prison 160 days previously after 26 years of continuous incarceration. Nevertheless, Mike coordinated two days of meetings with his team and hundreds of people who served time.
Upon meeting me, Mike shook my hand and invited me to drive with him in a government vehicle. His enthusiastic embrace meant the world to me. We drove to a corporate office building that served as headquarters for Correctional Industries (CI), a subsidiary of the Washington State Prison System.
Michael led me on a brief tour and offered a history of the organization, explaining that CI operated with the mission of building safer communities. To achieve that end, it created a series of businesses within the prison system that served the Department of Corrections, other state agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Those businesses operated state-of-the-art factories that provided goods and services like furniture, food services, laundry services, metal fabrications, and other operations. CI charged a market-based wage for its products, then used the financial resources the businesses generated to help people in prison develop skills and values that would lead to their successful transition into society. He had an interest in learning more about our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program.
Michael introduced me to several members of his leadership team. I met several Assistant Directors, and managers who worked inside of the 12 different prisons that Washington State operated. I learned that the industries program served approximately 1,600 inmates on any given day.
Making the Contractual Agreement:
Following those introductions, I gave two presentations. I made the first presentation to Mr. Colwell’s leadership team. They were an incredible audience, generous with their enthusiasm about receiving my message. Clearly, they wanted to see positive outcomes from their work and I stood before them as exactly what they wanted to see come out of the prison system: a law-abiding, contributing citizen. I spoke about my journey, how and why I transformed my life while inside of the Pierce County Jail. Then I explained the steps that I was taking to create meaning by building a career around all that I learned from serving 26 years as a prisoner. After presenting to the executive staff, I gave the second presentation to a group of 60 men who were serving time inside of a Washington State minimum-security prison.
After those two presentations, Michael and his assistant, Lucian, led me to a conference room where we spoke more intimately about our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program. I told them about our current partners and how they were implementing the program. The process has been that I visited the institution to train facilitators. Then the facilitators taught the program inside of the institution.
Michael and I discussed our organization’s price points. I explained that our model required us to charge a one-year licensing fee to use all of the materials we developed, and additional fee to cover the costs of training on a per-day basis. We then began to speak about how we could introduce the program into different prisons within the Washington State Department of Corrections. As Michael drove me back to my hotel, we agreed to terms that would allow our organization to become a vendor to the Washington State Department of Corrections.
Going to Prison for Good:
I began Friday morning early, with a 10-mile run around the community of Tumwater. I returned in time to shower and be ready for Michael to pick me up at my hotel. We drove for about an hour until we reached the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. While driving together, we had a wonderful conversation about his career, my transformation, and our mutual vision of working to help more people in prison prepare for law-abiding, contributing lives.
Once we arrived at the medium-security prison, Michael and I unloaded our pockets of everything except our driver’s licenses, then we headed into the institution. He asked whether I had any bad feelings about stepping back into a prison after having recently been released. I told him that I felt totally at ease, as I was returning to prison for the good of society. This would be the fulfillment of a dream for me, I explained.
As I walked into the prison, I thought about my wife and all of the other family members who went through the same process whenever they wanted to visit loved ones in prison. I passed the officer my driver’s license. I walked through a metal detector. I showed that I wasn’t carrying anything in my pockets. Authorities issued me a visitor’s badge, then Michael and I joined his team. A series of heavy metal doors slid open electronically and we walked deeper inside of the prison, passed barbed wire fences and cameras.
We began a tour through the amazing factory that CI operated inside the Stafford Creek prison. It was a state-of-the-art facility, more than 100,000 square feet of space, with highly polished concrete floors, and the most modern technology available to manufacture high quality furniture for corporate offices and community living. Staff members greeted me warmly, giving me a tour and showing me how inmates operated the sophisticated robotic machinery. The entire operation impressed me. I saw men wearing prison issued clothing operating an immaculate factory. It felt as if I were touring a Boeing plant rather than a prison. The people worked with a deliberate purpose, and the men greeted Mike Colwell and his team familiarly, as if they were all on friendly terms. The atmosphere lacked the tension to which I was accustomed in a prison setting.
The more I learned about the factory that CI operated, the more I understood why. Michael Colwell worked together with Lyle Morse, Director of Correctional Industries to build it. I met Lyle and I learned that prior to working for the state’s prison system, he had been in private industry, owing and operating a series of successful businesses, including high-tech manufacturing businesses. Together with the rest of their team, they not only worked to teach people in prison skills that would lead to high-paying jobs, they also taught the importance of developing character and a mindset that would translate into success.
The Correctional Industries furniture factory that I toured generated more than $13 million in annual revenues. The profits flowed right back into the institution, as Mr. Colwell and his team invested those resources into programs that educate the men inside. They partnered with Evergreen College to educate the men so that they could earn college degrees. That type of innovative thinking completely disrupted the model of mass incarcerated that focused on warehousing human beings. Truly, Mr. Morse and Mr. Colwell wanted to create a culture that would inspire leadership, self-governance, and pride in the men who worked inside of CI.
Following a complete tour of the Correctional Industries factory and the college section, I walked through the impressive business office. I saw many men who were sitting behind computers running sophisticated software systems. They were running database systems, operating computer assisted design programs, running spreadsheets, and processing paperwork that kept the factory operating in the most amazing best-practices way. The men I men impressed me as having a skillset that would allow them to contribute to any business.
Then we walked into a lunchroom, and all of the men and staff members joined me. Mike gave me a generous introduction, then I spoke for an hour to the men about my journey. I told them how my life began inside of a Pierce County Jail cell 26 years before, when I made the 100 percent commitment to:
- reject criminal lifestyles,
- develop critical thinking skills,
- educate myself,
- contribute to society,
- reconcile with others for the crimes I had committed, and
- prepare for a law-abiding, contributing life.
I spoke for an hour, sharing with the men how I had left prison only 160 days before and how I was now focused on a three-pronged strategy to add value to society. Along with others in our organization, we worked to:
Teach strategies that would help others in custody prepare for law-abiding, contributing lives.
Help the formerly incarcerated transition into the job market.
Bring more awareness to taxpaying citizens about why we needed to reform our nation’s prison system so that we could end intergenerational cycles of failure.
I asked the men to join my work by making a 100 percent commitment to prepare for success, not only while they worked at the extraordinary operations of Correctional Industries. I wanted the men to see themselves as law-abiding citizens, and I wanted them to return to society without hatred or bitterness in their heart, with a full commitment to live as contributing citizens. I asked them to participate in our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program so they could learn from others who returned to society strong. That way, I explained, they could build the skillset necessary to truly triumph over imprisonment.
The men were incredible supportive of my message, expressing an eagerness and an enthusiasm to participate in the Straight-A Guide Program as soon as it would be offered.
Working with Leadership:
Following my presentation, I joined Mike and we met up with Lyle Morse, the Director of Correctional Industries. He was leading a journalist and a photographer from the Seattle Times through the prison factory. The newspaper was about to write a story about the amazing accomplishment that Correctional Industries ran inside of the Washington State Prison System. I felt as if I were the prodigal son. I began as a cocaine dealer. But while locked inside of a Pierce County Jail cell, I found the motivation to transform my life. Then, after 26 years of a disciplined, deliberate adjustment, I returned to Washington as a man with values, skills, and resources that allowed me to transition into society seamlessly. I was excited about working with the leadership of Correctional Industries to show other people in prison that they could achieve the same outcome.
We then left the prison, enjoyed lunch together at Amore, an Italian restaurant in Aberdeen, and the returned to Tumwater for a meeting at the headquarters of the Washington State Department of Corrections. We walked into a modern office building, then we rode an elevator to the top floor. Mike escorted me into the office of Dan Pacholke, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Corrections. Scott Frakes, Deputy Director of the prison system joined us at the conference table in Mr. Pacholke’s office. I proceeded to tell them my story, beginning with expressions of how incredibly proud I was that they would set aside time late on a Friday afternoon to listen to a man who had only recently been released from prison. Then, to my amazement, Bernard Warner, Secretary of the Department of Corrections joined us. He reported directly to the governor, and he was listening to me, a former prisoner.
Connecting the Dots:
Because of that initial email that Michael Richardson sent to the Department of Corrections, I met Mike Colwell, an Assistant Director of the Washington State Department of Corrections. As a consequence of Mike Colwell’s independent research on my background, he reached out to me directly. That correspondence led to his opening an opportunity for me to make a presentation. That presentation led to my meeting:
- Bernard Warner, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections;
- Dan J. Pacholke, Assistant Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections;
- Lyle Morse, Director of Correctional Industries;
- Scott R. Frakes, Deputy Director of the Washington State Department of Corrections;
- Numerous other Assistant Directors, managers, and leaders of people who ran an amazing example of what a corrections system should be.
I left Tumwater with an enthusiasm that I’d never experienced before, I was eager to return to the Washington State Department of Corrections. With that aspiration, I pledged to do everything within my power to inspire the dedicated leadership team, the staff, and all of the men who served time inside the prison system.
It was my job, my purpose, my calling to show others that anyone could become more than past bad decisions or current circumstances. We all needed to work together to present a coherent message, showing people in prison how everyone had the power within to sustain a high level of discipline and energy. If individuals sustained the vision of returning to society strong, with a 100 percent commitment to success, they could return differently from what anyone would expect.
I looked forward to serving as an example of living, breathing evidence, that an individual could serve decades in prison, but return to society as a fully functioning, contributing citizen. That outcome did not happen by accident, but anyone who wanted to make a 100 percent commitment to reject the criminal lifestyle could chart a course to a new future. Our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program would show men in prison how I did it, and it would show them how they could do the same.