Portland-area ex-convicts find help in rising from the ashes
Portland-area ex-convicts find help inrising from the ashesBy Susan Goldsmith, The OregonianNovember 01, 2009, 10:00AMFREDRICK D. JOEHarry Olsen, a former Oregon State Penitentiary inmate and founder of Phoenix Rising Transitions,arrives at the Columbia River Correctional Institution to conduct a class for inmates.In a conference room at the Columbia River prison near the Portland airport, 20 convicts chattogether in pairs.Its a bland conference room, like those in offices across America, but two large picture windows onone side open onto a prison corridor where inmates and guards walk by. The men around the tablewear standard-issue prison blues with INMATE emblazoned across the back in orange letters and aDepartment of Corrections seal.Several minutes later, one man from each group reports what the other one told him. They talkabout prison classes they are taking and their plans for release. The inmates are learning to listenand to support one another.The men are serving time for crimes such as armed robbery and drug dealing, but they are in thismeeting by choice. Each is looking for help to make a successful transition to freedom.The program, Phoenix Rising Transitions, is the brainchild of ex-convict Harry Olsen, a 59-year-oldformer heroin addict and career criminal who left prison in 1991 determined to transform himself.Now hes working to transform others.Olsen pairs ex-cons who have turned their lives around with those on the inside who desire to dothe same. He also brings in outside community volunteers to teach skills and develop relationshipswith prisoners."The idea is that we can do it together and we dont need a lot of specialists and people withacademic degrees to try and tell us what we need to do to get better," Olsen says. "What we tryand do is create an environment where transformation is possible."Olsen hasnt tracked the inmates he has helped, and he concedes that some go back to prison. Butthe anecdotal evidence of his success is strong enough that state corrections officials want toreplicate his program in other Oregon prisons."Its not coming from the heart," Olsen says, "its coming from somewhere lower: the wallet."Oregons two-year corrections budget stands at $1.4 billion -- the cost of locking up close to 14,000people in state prisons and supervising 35,000 others who have been released. Each month, 400inmates leave prison, but 30 percent of them end up back behind bars within three years.Similar ex-con-to-prisoner mentoring programs have taken off around the country, according toBlake Norton, a project director for the Council of State Governments in Washington, D.C. Theprograms dont have a long enough track record for solid research on recidivism, but correctionsofficials say they make sense."Its about having people who speak your language," Norton said. "Its individual responsibilitycoupled with a community." Seeking direction, purposeFor years, Harry Olsen was lost in a drug-fueled blur. His heroin addiction and what he calls "his
criminality" earned him several stints in the Oregon State Penitentiary. He spent eight years in andout of prison for check forgeries, illegal prescription writing and drug charges. By the time he wasreleased at 39, he was tired. He was widowed, had two children, no job skills and no direction forlife outside prison."The culture shock was overwhelming," Olsen says now.Still, he wanted to wade through the muddle and find some direction and purpose. He worked oddjobs, took classes and read a lot. By 1995, the idea of a network of convicts helping one anothertook hold in his imagination. He decided real change would be possible for convicts only if theyvoluntarily joined in "building a culture of relationships."It was time to go back to prison.Olsen drafted other ex-cons to counsel inmates close to release and mentor them on the outside.He lined up community volunteers to talk to the inmates in prison and teach them problem-solvingskills.Olsen started the nonprofit with money from his odd jobs and help from his mother. Now thenonprofit raises about $25,000 a year from individual donations and small grants. He has developedpartnerships with other nonprofits and attracted more volunteers. Family involvement has stayedimportant.Olsen remarried, and his wife, Karen Meurer, a former Habitat for Humanity director in Baltimore,also works with Phoenix.His mother took in inmates at her Gresham home at his urging when the men couldnt find housing."One guy stayed for six months and underwent an amazing transformation," Olsen said. "Hed beendown for armed robbery and kidnapping."Many of the community members Olsen recruited for his first group at Columbia River prison havebecome regulars at Phoenix Risings meetings.Barry Anderson is a Portland State University psychology professor who has volunteered to teachproblem-solving skills to Phoenix inmates for seven years, co-teaching with an ex-con. The programworks, Anderson says, because of Olsens emphasis on requiring the inmates to help themselves."There are a lot of wonderful stories about people whove stayed out of prison because of Harry." "I wanted to better myself"One of those people is William Smith, who at age 50 acted to break his criminal cycle. Afternumerous convictions for robbery and assault, Smith decided he was wasting his life. Before he wasreleased two years ago, he turned to the Phoenix Rising program. In the prison meetings, heworked with Olsen and musician Scott Brazieal, a longtime Phoenix community volunteer.Today, Smith lives with his girlfriend, attends college and works as a laborer."I wanted to better myself," he says, "and swallowing my pride at the age of 54, I started college."Now, hes a nearly straight-A student at Portland Community College. "Ive just finished my secondyear of schooling to be a drug and alcohol counselor," he says.Smith praises Phoenix Rising for helping him, especially for teaching him problem-solving skills,which he admits he lacked."Phoenix doesnt give you money or housing or jobs, but they give you the support where I couldtake any problem to a class or to any of the people I know and get an honest assessment. It gaveme the opportunity to think about my actions rather than just act."-- Susan Goldsmith
Coffee Creek inmates craft prizewinning quiltQuilt marks the end of a bishops career and the culmination of a womansoutreach project • By: Amanda Newman • Published: 10/20/2009 12:44:36 PM • Last Updated: 10/20/2009 12:48:18 PMSubmitted PhotoThe "Bishops Quilt," made by inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, won first place in theThimbleberries “Wish You Were Here” Quilt Challenge this year.The winning entry in Thimbleberries’ “Wish You Were Here” Quilt Challenge this yearwas crafted by a perhaps unlikely group of quilters: Coffee Creek Correctional Facilityinmates.Entry in the contest, part of Portland’s 2009 Northwest Quilting Expo, was a joint effortof students and teachers in the Coffee Creek Quilters program. The group won a basketof fabrics made by the Thimbleberries quilting and sewing product line, worth $1,500.“It was just the most amazing thing, that a quilt made by inmates could win first prize,”said Mary Ann McCammon. A CCQ teacher and president of the group’s board ofdirectors, McCammon participated in the effort, and said it was “amazing to watch” thetime and care the students took in making their pieces.
Ann Johnson, a CCQ instructor and quilt designer, designed the quilt and students inCCQ’s four classes made sampler blocks to contribute. Instructors pieced the blockstogether and stitched the binding. Kayleen Davis, a CCQ volunteer, machine-quilted theproject.CCQ students usually work on individual quilts; the contest brought them together towork on a shared project.“We were working with a short deadline,” Johnson said in a press release, “so it was achance for students to learn about teamwork and time management, as well as theprecision skills needed for quilt making. We’re very proud of the students’ effort.”The contest required entrants use at least a half-yard of one of the three ThimbleberriesNorth by Northwest prints. The CCQ group selected one depicting postcards with PacificNorthwest landmarks. The prize-winning piece was dubbed the “Bishop’s Quilt” – it is agift for CCQ supporter Bishop Sandy Hampton, retiring soon from the Episcopal Dioceseof Oregon.McCammon said CCQ was approached by St. Francis Episcopal Church about creating aquilt for Hampton. “We thought it would be most appropriate if the students at CoffeeCreek did most of the quilting, rather than the teachers,” she said. They then decided toenter it in the contest, as well.For many students, the quilt represented the improvement they’ve made since joiningCCQ.“Im glad I got to work on the Bishop’s Quilt,” one student expressed in the release.“When I started the class, I had a hard time cutting the fabric straight. Now I’vecontributed to this beautiful quilt.”For McCammon and the others behind CCQ, it marked the difference one woman hadmade in lives of hundreds of inmates. Program founder KoKo Sutton, who started CCQwith two instructors and two sewing machines, died Oct. 15 of cancer. Since 2002, herinmate quilting program has grown to include about 20 instructors and enrolls 60 to 80students a year.“It’s just a wonderful example of the impact one person can make,” McCammon said.The Bishop’s Quilt will be presented to Hampton in a November ceremony.CCQ is a nonprofit organization that teaches quilting to Coffee Creek inmates in weeklytwo-hour classes. Each student makes three quilts over the course of the class: the firsttwo are donated to charities serving seniors, hospitalized or foster children, andterminally ill adults; the third is kept by the student or given to a loved one. Every year,CCQ donates approximately 150 quilts to charity.For more information, visit www.coffeecreekquilters.org
The Boones Ferry Messenger November 2009 Page 3COMMUNITY Wilsonville Community Center 7965 SW Wilsonville RoadCONNECTION Phone: 682-3727 Active Lifestyles, Social Opportunities, Healthy Community Coffee Creek Inmates Brighten Lives of Seniors UpcomingFor six years the inmates at Cof- words of encouragement and wis- Classes &fee Creek Correctional Facility havevolunteered at the Wilsonville Com- dom. The bags brighten the day of the senior clients and provide the Programs All Require Pre-Registrationmunity Center setting up the dining inmates with the opportunity to giveroom, serving lunch and doing the back to their community. “This addi-dishes. Nathan Cantlin, the Inmate tional project is a very nice addition Youth FencingWork Program Coordinator, wanted to our program, said Nutrition Pro- Ages 8 - 18his group to be more involved and gram Coordinator, Evie Proctor. “The Tuesdays 11/3 - 12/8contacted the Community Center to seniors will often call and share 6:30 p.m - 8 p.m. see if there was more they could do how much the brightly decorated Community Center for the seniors. As a result, each bag made their day.” A big thank $90 week the inmates spend time deco- you to Coffee Creek Correctional rating the lunch bags for the Home Facility for making our seniors’ lives Delivered Meal Program. Recently, brighter with your wonderful Middle School Dance they began to add some heartfelt artwork. Friday 11/20 7:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. $5 Wilsonville Lifelong Learning Academy Open to middle school Start improving your brain and overall fitness by learning more about aged students living these health related topics! in Wilsonville 11/4/09 11/10/09 11/18/09 Oil Painting The Diabetes & Aging All Ages Magnificent Good vs. Bad in $48 Mind Cholesterol Place 11/3 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m. Presentations are free, take place at the Community Center and start at noon. Community Center Call for more details! 11/14 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Wilsonville Library Holiday Happenings! A Holiday Potpourri Holiday Fun Fest Editing Your Digital Photos A festive musical celebration will be held Join us for this annual community event. at the Community Center on Thursday, Build a “Gingerbread House” and deco- Mondays 11/2 - 1/4 December 3rd from 11:30 to 1:30 PM. rate it with a wide variety of candies. 10 a.m. - 11:30 a.m All are invited to join the I-5 connection Santa will be on hand, as well as compli- Community Center music group for a show that will be sure mentary cookies and cocoa. The cost is $15 - over 55 to put you in the holiday spirit. Hors d’ just $4.00 per house. Hope to see you $25 - 54 and under oeuvres, desserts and refreshments will at the Community Center on Thursday, be served. Bring your friends and help us December 10th from 3:30 - 5:30 pm. celebrate the joy of the season!
Inmates stitch stockings for Christmas giftsPick up and fill a stocking at Washington Federal Savings or WilsonvilleCoffee Company • Published: 11/4/2009 10:00:24 AMPhoto By: Josh KullaFILL A STOCKINGThe sewing group gathers for a small ceremony.Gayle Richardson thought she had given up life as a seamstress when she applied for ajob as a corrections officer at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.For 22 years, Richardson owned and operated her own sewing business in Portland. Butglobal economic trends over the past decade have hollowed out manufacturingthroughout the United States. Jobs, including those requiring commercial sewing, haveincreasingly been shipped overseas as corporations such as Jantzen, Columbia and otherlocal names sought to remain competitive.“There used to be a lot of sewing in Portland,” Richardson said. “It really has lost a lot.”That trend went on to claim Richardson’s business, leaving her at a crossroads severalyears ago.Coming from a law enforcement family, the transition to corrections officer was smooth.But even though she wound up supervising the prison sewing shop, it didn’t quite fill thetwo-decade void.That was before Richardson found “Fill a Stocking, Fill a Heart.”“This was something Mr. Powell (Coffee Creek minimum security wing manager RobertPowell) brought to us,” Richardson said. “And the girls were really excited about theopportunity.”“Fill a Stocking, Fill a Heart” is a non-profit group that assists charitable organizations inClackamas County. It provides clients, largely children, with a gift-filled stocking duringthe holidays.
The group formed in 1997, and handed out 500 stockings its first Christmas. Now, withthe help of a small army of volunteers, it provides over 2,500 stockings annually to over20 agencies.The catch is that someone has to make the stockings in the first place. And that’s wherethe women at Coffee Creek came into play.They got involved a little over three months ago when “Fill a Stocking” volunteer andorganizer Darcy Baker contacted Powell about the possibility. The need for seamstresses,Baker said, as well as her law enforcement connections – she’s a member of the Oregonstate parole board - led her in that direction from the start.“I’ve been a volunteer seamstress for six years, and I just think this is a really worthwhileproject,” Baker said.Inmates to the rescueAt its heart, “Fill a Stocking” is simple. Volunteers, including Coffee Creek inmates, sewstockings for “Fill a Stocking” throughout the year using fabric and other materialsdonated by local businesses and individuals.Each October, volunteers pick up stockings from Coffee Creek and others who makethem. They are then filled with basic items including toothpaste, socks or gloves andsorted by age and gender for each order.“We try to get at least 3,000 made, so at the last minute we won’t get hysterical,” saidMarcelle Tebo, who oversees sewing assignments for the group.This year, however, in a time of increased need, the organization hit the proverbialjackpot when they sought help from Coffee Creek. The nine inmates selected forparticipation went through an application process much like a normal job. Ultimately,they sewed over 1,400 stockings in just three months, utilizing production line techniquesto turn out a remarkably standardized product.These results stunned Baker and the entire “Fill a Stocking” crew.“I about fell out of my chair when Bob (Powell) called and said, ‘Hey, we’re done,’”Baker said. “We wanted to do something to recognize these women.”That led to the simple, yet poignant ceremony held Sept. 17 in a minimum-securityclassroom. There, the nine inmates were presented with certificates of participation and abig personal thanks from Baker, Tebo and, or course, Richardson.“What you’ve done here is really a Godsend,” Tebo told the inmates. “This has just beenwonderful of you, the organization just can’t thank you enough.”For the women involved, the opportunity to give back to a community they once may
have victimized through criminal activity was a huge incentive to see the project through.“I’m proud of myself and my co-workers,” said inmate Shasta Hernandez, “because wedid something to make the outside world happier.”While some women already were assigned to the prison sewing workshop, some werebrand new to sewing. All were required to learn how to work with a team on an assemblyline.“Everything was fun about it,” said inmate Michelle Palin. “I love sewing, and it’ssomething I probably wouldn’t have learned on my own. It’s something I’ll use for myfamily for sure.”To a woman, the inmates also heaped praise on Richardson for spearheading the effort.“She loves sewing,” said inmate Victoria Nevarez. “It’s her passion, so that instills that inus, too.”Wiping away a tear that was part joy and part pride, Richardson had the last word.“It’s nice to give a piece of love back to the community, to the kids and to the elderly,”she said.AT A GLANCEHelp fill 2500 stockings for the needy in Clackamas County. The biggest needs aretoothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo, mild body soap, deodorant, razors, hats & gloves,socks, brushes & combs, all baby items. Chamber member participants are WashingtonFederal Savings and Wilsonville Coffee Company. Pick up a stocking at either of theselocations. Fill the stockings and return. Call 503-632-0577 for details