The Patron Saint of Ex-Cons

If no one comes to his aid, Ari Kohn will be spending his way to homelessness.

One day last June, Terry Grant left Atwater Prison in California, where he'd been serving time on an array of burglary and gun charges, and boarded a Greyhound bus for Seattle. He had spent most of his last 20 years in prison high on methamphetamine bought on the underground market. But he had found religion recently and resolved to change his life. Ari Kohn wanted to help him.Kohn is a 60-year-old with shaggy gray hair, prone to wearing worn blue jeans and talking discursively about his favorite subject—ex-cons—with a slight twang that betrays his Southern roots. Kohn and Grant's lawyer, federal defender Michael Filipovic, met the former drug addict at the downtown Greyhound station, took him to eat at Taco Del Mar, and brought him to a federal halfway house where he was due to spend the next six months. A couple of weeks later, Kohn returned to take Grant clothes shopping. Grant needed office attire, because Kohn had persuaded a public defense agency to hire him as a receptionist and messenger. Beyond that, though, Kohn had a bigger plan from which he never wavered, even when Grant himself did. Kohn wanted Grant to go to college, which is where he thinks ex-cons belong.Prisoner "re-entry" has become a buzzword locally and nationally. As ever-harsher sentencing laws have swelled the prison population, and the national recidivism rate has climbed to over 65 percent, both at great cost to taxpayers, even once hard-on-crime legislators are trying to figure out how to help ease ex-prisoners back into society so that they don't re-offend. Last spring, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill requiring the Department of Corrections to create a "re-entry plan" for every inmate. It mandated that ex-cons receive treatment for addictions, mental health problems, and other underlying causes for their behavior. But the bill did not do much to provide for the more immediate needs of ex-cons emerging from prison—food, clothing, and housing—let alone their higher education.Kohn has taken it upon himself to fill that vacuum. For three years he's been running, and funding, the Post-Prison Education Program, which takes former prisoners on in entirety—paying for whatever food, housing, and clothing they and their families need. Then Kohn checks up on them, with constant meetings, e-mails, phone calls, and shopping trips.The program's $200,000-plus annual budget, which currently is covering tuition and living costs for 20 ex-cons in college, comes almost entirely from Kohn and his 87-year-old mother, Florida resident Barbara Hinebaugh. He's a self-described "radical liberal;" she calls herself a "dyed-in-the-wool" Republican. The politically mismatched pair are unusual benefactors. For one thing, he's a felon himself. In 1996, Kohn went to prison on wire-fraud charges related to a benefits company he ran that, according to the government, defrauded a corporate client of thousands of dollars supposed to be used for dependent-care reimbursement. (Kohn says he did not intend to deceive.) He served four-and-a-half years.For another thing, he and his mom say they are not particularly rich. There is some family money, thanks to an inheritance from Kohn's grandfather, a successful architect, and Kohn made some of his own through periodic work in the finance industry. But now, they say, the money is running out. "We're spending our way into homelessness," Kohn says. "I've used almost all my savings for this project," adds Hinebaugh, who has continued to work full time as a life-insurance agent in order to keep it afloat.So Kohn is trying to drum up money from outside sources, mainly from the Legislature. His chances are iffy.A persistent e-mailer and lobbyist, Kohn has quickly gained credibility. Serving on the Post-Prison program's board of directors and advisory committee are lawyers and University of Washington administrators, including the UW's assistant director of admissions, Robin Hennes. Carol Estes, a state lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy (a Quaker group), who works on criminal justice issues, calls Kohn's "re-entry" program "probably the best in the nation." Where others provide piecemeal help with housing or counseling assistance, she says, Kohn gives ex-cons "whatever they need to succeed.""I commend him for what he's doing," says Mike Carrell, a Republican state senator from Lakewood. He notes that the state re-entry bill, which he cosponsored, allows the Department of Corrections to use private funds to expand post-secondary education in prisons. (The Legislature pulled the funding on higher-education classes inside prisons in the mid-'90s, a move Carrell says he supported at the time.) "I hope prisoners get a taste of college in prison, which will be a bridge to further education on the outside."But Carrell says using taxpayer money for a program like Kohn's is "a difficult area for a lot of legislators, and for a lot of people. The argument is made, 'Why should this person who hurt my family be using my money to go to college?'"Sen. Debbie Regala (D-Tacoma), the other cosponsor of last year's re-entry bill, says she's seen the effectiveness of Kohn's program but cautions that "It's pretty rare that we would put money in the budget for a particular program.""At the point that I find out I'm not going to get [funding from the Legislature], the program will die," Kohn says. But at the moment, Kohn seems as immersed in it as ever.In his pleasantly cluttered Wedgwood rental house, propping his bare feet up on his brown sectional, Kohn tells of a call he fielded the other night from one of the program's students, who goes to community college in Spokane. "He was really upset." A guy he lived with had accused the student of stealing his creamer, which he hadn't, according to Kohn. "I spent an hour talking to him. I told him, 'If you go off on this guy, it's going to wreck your life. You've got to discipline yourself.'"Kohn says the student, by and large, is "doing really well," although Kohn sets his expectations according to each individual's challenges. This student, a former addict who is learning disabled, is "not on crack" and is "loved by other students and by professors," Kohn says.Kohn's program has had a few failures. "The first student we had got more money from us than the two banks he robbed," Kohn jokes. This ex-con had generated "a warm, fuzzy feeling" when he showed up at a meeting of what was then a working committee of people getting the organization off the ground. Someone passed the hat for him. Afterward, one of the committee members took the fellow to South Seattle Community College to enroll him, and gave him more cash for an apartment in Burien. The ex-con took the money—probably a couple thousand dollars, Kohn estimates—and went on a drug and alcohol binge. Nowadays, Kohn says, the program doesn't give cash for anything, instead paying bills directly and picking up the tab on shopping trips.Grant, the ex-con who arrived by Greyhound last June, was initially a tough case. Kohn had felt a strong urge to help after reading the personal essay that is required in the program's application process. "When I was approximately 15 months old, my stepfather shot my mother in the head, shot her employer in the head, then turned the gun on himself," Grant wrote. Normally, applications are judged by the program's scholarship committee, but in this case, Kohn recalls, "I just said, 'This guy's in.'"While living in the federal halfway house, similar to a state work-release facility in that residents are still under close supervision, Grant got busted for sneaking beer into the place and had to go back to federal prison for a month. When he got out, Grant says he decided he wasn't yet ready for school. Kohn thought otherwise and took him down to Pierce College, a serene community college in Lakewood that another ex-con in the program attends. Grant started school in January."It's difficult," he says. "You gotta remember I did 20 years." But he says he gets to school an hour-and-a-half early every morning to work on his papers and go to the tutoring center. He buses every weekend to the Seattle area to see family and Kohn, who takes him shopping at QFC and drives him home.A few weeks ago, Grant got his report card for the first quarter. His average for three classes including English and math: 3.62. "I e-mailed that to half the world," Kohn says.nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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