One Man’s Campaign to Stop the Revolving Door in Washington’s Prisons

Ari Kohn works to save Washington’s prisoners from themselves.

An outlaw wind races across these barren hills as the late-November sun glints off the curled wreaths of razor wire that embrace Coyote Ridge Corrections Center like a steel cocoon. The massive prison, opened two decades ago, lies on the outskirts of Connell, a dust speck of a town in southeast Washington, where in the late 1880s the Northern Pacific and Oregon Railroad joined at a place an old rail hand named Jacob Cornelius Connell called Palouse Junction. Today, a french-fry factory and the manufacture of agricultural chemicals keep the economy chugging in and around this Franklin County burb—those, and the welcome addition of the second largest penal institution in the state, trailing only the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

At Coyote Ridge, by callous intent, the landscape is devoid of grass, plants, or trees. There are only asphalt, gravel, and 21 low-slung concrete boxes, windowless edifices sitting on a hundred parched acres where deer and skittering jackrabbits roam free. Here, 2,478 inmates are serving sentences ranging from five years to life, all of them penned in two-man cells, locked down seven days a week from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The monotonous hues of grays and white ensure that a prisoner’s emotional state is neutralized, corrections officials agree. The colorless environment—like the jarring groan of electronic doors, the toilets without walls, and the specter of solitary confinement if one strays beyond assigned boundaries—informs offenders that they have but one master now, the Washington State Department of Corrections.

At night, when the tower lights shine down, Coyote Ridge resembles a sinister-looking jacket illustration for a Dennis Lehane novel.

“Can you imagine doing 20 years here?” Ari Kohn mutters as he trudges toward the security checkpoint.

As a cold gust flaps at his jeans, Kohn, with sandaled feet, is accompanied by several ex-cons: a convicted forger, a onetime drug-addled car thief, and Robert Swindler, who’s barely 18 months removed from the slammer, having served 23 years for killing 87-year-old Ruth Glover during a robbery at her small dairy in Sequim in the late 1980s. Kohn often brings ex-prisoners with him to offer their own testimonials about what an education has done for them in beginning to rebuild their lives after prison.

“The public is egregiously ignorant of who prisoners are,” says Kohn. He is grandly contemptuous of the nation’s criminal-justice system, which today supervises an incarcerated population of 3.3 million people—a number that has quintupled since 1970, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“They think they are all malicious people. But they [prisoners] have had their humanity denied,” Kohn declares, his voice hot as Tabasco. “They were born to poverty, so many of them, hooked on drugs by their parents. They’ve slept beside mothers who are prostituting themselves. Children of violent fathers, victims of fetal alcohol syndrome. Christ, 16 percent of them are seriously mentally ill. They were not parented. And so we fight like motherfuckers to combat the humanity denied.”

Kohn goes on, “They broke the law, but they are not meth heads or crack heads or incorrigible. I don’t like labels. They are children and fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers.”

Kohn is a crusty 66-year-old salt with a scraggly beard, a sailor’s mouth, and Southern blood simmering with mischief and melodrama. “We call him ‘Papa Cranky Pants.’ He’s absolutely antagonistic, but that’s because he so much wants to make a difference,” observes Gina McConnell, the convicted forger who has accompanied Kohn to the Connell prison.

He’s a complex stew, Kohn—a rebel with a cause. “I’m to the left of Che Guevara,” he says. “Compared to me, he’s a Tea Party Republican.” Like many of the ex-cons he struggles to put back in society’s stream, Kohn has been damaged. Tears come easily, and a fatalistic streak pervades. He frequently quotes from Iris DeMent’s protest song “Wasteland of the Free,” and from Chief Crazy Horse: “Today is a good day to die.”

Kohn, once a longtime guest in assorted federal hoosegows, has a past that haunts him still, this son of a cruel and overbearing mother and a weak, emasculated father, whom Kohn watched disintegrate from drink. He mopped that man’s blood, in fact, on Father’s Day 1975, when his dad raised a .38 pistol from the coffee table at their Central Florida estate, pressed it to his neck, and fired.

“I can still see the puddles and his brains,” Kohn whispers during an interview last month at his office inside downtown’s Central Building, headquarters for his Post-Education Prison Program. “I begged my mother for months to take the gun away, but she’d just say, ‘I know your father better than you do. He won’t do this.’ Everyone was always wrong but her. If she had an argument with Jesus, Jesus would be wrong. My mother is a monster. She was like George Patton in a dress. She’s 93 now. I haven’t talked to her in years.”

Kohn speaks to prisoners at Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen. (Photo by Jo Arlow)

On this November afternoon, Kohn is on the road doing the work that consumes him—traveling at least two weeks out of every month to one of Washington’s 12 state penitentiaries, warning prisoners that if they don’t get an education as soon as those doors swing open, they’ll be back. Count on it.

Shortly after 1 p.m., electronic doors click open and a group of nearly 100 khaki-clad inmates, murderers, rapists, robbers, and thieves gingerly shuffle into a conference room at Coyote Ridge. The guards call it the “Big Room.” No one says a word.

Before them stands Kohn, who eight years ago created his nonprofit. Everyone in the Big Room knows who he is. His reputation is solid, hard-earned. Why, he’s the swaggering patron saint of ex-cons. As one inmate, with two years left on an 18-year manslaughter sentence, confides, “They all say he’ll work his ass off to keep you out, as long as you work your ass off for him. He’s really sort of a legend.”

“I know I sound like a cop,” Kohn tells his captive audience, “but it really is about hard work, discipline, and focus. If you get an education, chances are good you won’t be coming back here.”

He’s right. Each of the 17,400 state prison inmates locked up in Washington costs taxpayers $37,300 to house and feed per year. If trends hold, 43 percent of the nearly 8,000 inmates who go free in 2013 will reoffend within three years and return to their cages, says deputy prison director Earl Wright. According to a RAND Corporation study published in August, researchers found that inmates who participate in education programs have 43 percent lower odds of going back to prison than those who do not.

Last month, at the behest of the state legislature, looking to find savings in the Department of Corrections’ operating budget, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that for every convict who receives post-secondary college education, the public saves almost $6,000 in incarceration costs and another $16,600 in indirect savings, such as crime compensation and significant reductions in repeat criminal behavior.

The Department of Corrections currently runs a budget of almost $1.8 billion. Of that, a mere fraction, just $15 million, is earmarked for education—and that only goes toward providing inmates with a GED if they lack one, or some form of vocational training, notes Michael Paris, the DOC’s administrator of offender education.

Since 1995, Washington has banned state funding for college education in prisons, despite unrefuted evidence showing that it is hugely successful in reducing recidivism. “There’s no doubt that if you have a college education, you’re a lot less likely to ever go to prison,” says deputy prison director Scott Frakes. “And if you get a college education while in prison, you’re far less likely to come back.”

To date, Kohn’s post-prison program has worked closely with 250 inmates who are back in circulation. His rules are ironclad: They must go to school. Live like a monk, or close to it. Get help for their drug addictions, anger problems, and the like.

In exchange, Kohn will take care of their tuition, rent, food, bus passes, and cell phone expenses. Beginning from the day of their release, he checks up on them constantly, calls them, e-mails them, counsels, badgers, nags, whatever it takes to keep the ex-cons on the straight and narrow. In those eight years, Kohn says, only three of the ex-prisoners he’s dealt with have reoffended.

Virtually all the funds for Kohn’s program come from individual donors and business contributions. For several years, his two biggest benefactors have been Google and the Sunshine Lady Foundation, founded by philanthropist Doris Buffett.

“Ari may very well be unique. I don’t know anyone else anywhere in the country that is doing what he’s doing, and I’ve been in corrections for 35 years,” says Eldon Vail, who headed the Washington Department of Corrections from 2008 to 2011.

“We’re just a little piddly-ass nonprofit, with a $300,000 budget last year,” Kohn says, “and we’re making a monkey’s ass of the state and the cowardly legislators who think educating prisoners will show that they’re somehow soft on crime.”

Ginny Bromley remembers, as a little girl growing up in Tacoma, the day police came and hauled her father away. A coke and meth addict, as was her mother, he’d do 20 years for an armed robbery that ended with him shooting a woman at a Pizza Hut. Ginny started using drugs at age 7, and by 12 was smoking meth with Mom. Years later, the two would serve time together—twice, in fact—at the women’s prison in Purdy.

“My mother was violent toward me. We all had violence problems. We were rageaholics. We beat the shit out of people,” recounts the 41-year-old Bromley. Dark-haired, with a hard, worn face and tattoos on her forearms, she thanks God for Ari Kohn.

“Ari is all blood, sweat, tears about this,” she says. “This is what his life consists of, nothing else. If it wasn’t for this program, I’d be in jail right now,” she says.

Bromley shakes her head in disbelief at the tragic twists and turns she’s endured. “When I was 16, I was beaten and raped in front of a crowd of people. I was kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to a shooting range near Mount Rainier, so no one could hear me scream.”

Hers has been a life of drugs, abusive relationships, and a string of arrests that led to 17 felony convictions for forgery, identity theft, and stealing cars. She served three prison terms, a total of six years.

Bromley has three children; the eldest, a 22-year-old son, is doing 11 years at the Monroe Reformatory. Kohn, she says, looked out for him while she was finishing her last year at Purdy. She’s been married twice, the latter to a man who long ago killed her boyfriend (the father of the oldest son) during a drug deal that went bad. They’re not together anymore. Too much rage, too many beatings.

She met Kohn in January 2012 at the downtown office, a few months after getting out. When she enrolled at Shoreline Community College, Kohn paid for her classes and food, and picked up some child expenses as well. Slowly, things are getting better. She attends King County drug diversion court thrice weekly. On December 6, Bromley celebrated a year of being clean and sober.

Gina McConnell speaks at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. (Photo by Jo Arlow)

“Ari has always been there for me when my ass was falling off,” she says. He’s at the top of the pyramid of all the support I’ve gotten.” Grateful for what the prison education program has done for her, she works full-time at the office, counseling ex-cons and going with Kohn to speak at prisons.

“There’s a lot of guilt and shame that has oppressed me,” Bromley told the prisoners last month at Coyote Ridge. “If I can do it, you can do it. Working with you guys has set me free.”

Asked later, over a burger on Connell’s main street, what it’s like for an ex-con to go back into the prisons, Bromley replies matter-of-factly—“It is like a dog returning to his vomit.”

Ari Kohn is like a character out of a Pat Conroy novel. Prince of Tides comes closest—the dark odyssey of Tom Wingo (played by Nick Nolte in the movie) attempting to overcome the psychological damage inflicted by his dysfunctional childhood in South Carolina.

Unlike Wingo, though, Kohn grew up rich—the grandson of an extremely wealthy architect, Harry A. Fulton, who gifted Kohn’s mother a lavish spread in Leesburg, Florida. It was a life of unadulterated privilege: yardmen tending to the citrus groves, a 13-acre horse pasture, cooks and maids, and Isabelle, who polished the silver for Sunday gatherings in the sunken dining room when neighbors and friends paid a call.

His father, Grover Vance Heinbaugh, though, was reared in poverty by parents whose home was owned by the coal company in Pennsylvania that employed him. He met Barbara Fulton during World War II at a USO function. “Wealthy girl meets poor man and they marry,” Kohn recalls with a smile. (By court order, Kohn, looking to reconnect with his Jewish roots, changed his name to his grandmother’s maiden name in 2006.)

“He was emasculated by her. There were always screaming fights,” Kohn begins. “I will always remember the image till I die of my father whipping my brother with an electrical cord after he spilled coffee on the Oriental carpet. He was beaten by my mother’s instructions. My brother had welts everywhere.

“Oh, there was so much of this. There was a time I had over some playmates and we were in the play yard, and I did something to piss her off, I guess. And my mother made me take off my clothes and she beat me in front of the other kids. That humiliation makes me dangerously mad to this day.”

Kohn goes on: “Everyone hated my mother. No one could meet her standards. I came up with little self-esteem. Nothing could please her. I was on the swim team, I played clarinet in the band, I was the star of my junior class play, Hieronymus Merkin. It didn’t matter.”

As a freshman at Furman University—“a spoiled kid, drinking Schlitz and playing bridge”—Kohn received a letter from his mother letting him know that his beloved childhood horse, Bonnie Las, had died and that they had buried her by a big tree near the barn. Later, Kohn learned that she had Bonnie, the horse he used to ride for hours through the citrus groves, transported to Green Cove Springs, Florida. That’s where Barbara Fulton sold Bonnie to a slaughterhouse.

In 1972, Kohn left his job in Atlanta—where he was selling PVC conduit to AT&T “and making more money than God has angels”—and returned home. “I was just a rich, dumb country boy then, a Barry Goldwater Republican,” he reflects. “I thought guys like Humphrey and George McGovern were scary communists. I voted for Nixon, for Reagan.” He’d come back to Leesburg to care for Grover, who, dead drunk, had nearly killed himself in a car accident. “He woke up 18 months later, crippled. We took him to the country club for water therapy. My mother hired George Wallace’s neurosurgeon to treat him,” Kohn remembers.

“We had a black man who worked for us named Bill Williams. He was my dad’s best friend. He told my mother that he, my father, was thinking of killing himself, and then I remember Dad saying to me, ‘Don’t get me anything for Father’s Day.’ He was on nursing assistance by now, and said he had that .38 pistol for his own protection.”

Tears running down his cheeks, Kohn continues: “And I saw him the day before [the suicide] and I said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ but he wouldn’t say anything back. And at 1 a.m. that night my brother calls to tell me Father had killed himself. I drove 110 miles an hour through Leesburg to get to the house. And then at 3 a.m., they took the body away, and my mother is saying to someone—I’ll never forget—‘Call Bill and tell him to come over and clean up the mess.’

“I went wild. ‘Call Bill’!? That bitch.”

Kohn married the second of three wives, Becky, in 1976, a year after Grover’s suicide. “She was the only woman I ever loved. I caused the divorce two years later because I was acting like an asshole. And then I was completely out of control. I bought a beer and wine bar, and went women-chasing. And I was doing hash and Quaaludes and grass, and drinking Beck’s dark beer. I did enough cocaine to sink a ship. I stayed outta control until 1983.

“I was living in Boca Raton and I called a drinking buddy and told him to meet me at Harrington’s in Winter Park, and I told him that every night I dreamed of my father, and that in all those dreams he was always perfectly healthy.”

Seeking to exorcise his demons, Kohn went to Asheville, North Carolina, and checked himself into Highland Hospital—where Zelda Fitzgerald, a psychiatric patient, died in a fire in 1948—and went through intensive counseling.

“I had issues, and I’m not going to tell you what they were.”

In 1984, he quit it all: the booze, the drugs, even coffee—and, hardest of all, the three daily packs of Marlboros. And with Melanie at his side, the woman he met at Highland and would later marry, he bought a 43.5-acre farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains and filled the grounds with dogs, Arabian horses, pet goats, sheep, and rabbits.

On a horrible wintry day not long after they’d been on the farm, Melanie was struck head-on by a 16-year-old kid, and would endure seven surgeries over several years to make her orbital socket right again.

In 1987, Kohn bought himself an Aerostar van and headed west on a lark. He rolled into Spokane six weeks later, thinking that Seattle was nearby. Melanie flew out shortly thereafter, and they camped at Mount Hood and Mount Rainier before coming up to the big city.

One day, at a public golf course near the airport, Kohn met a man who would completely alter the trajectory of his life. The guy was pushing a penny stock for a firm that administered IRS benefit plans to companies. Said it was a growing industry and a lot of money could be had. Kohn called dear old Mom for advice, her being a board member at New York Life Insurance. She told him he’d be well-advised to buy a franchise. Kohn hammered out a deal in which he’d open a string of offices throughout the Southeast. Then he and Melanie returned home to their North Carolina farm.

Turned out the company was a total scam, a corporate shell, but Kohn got himself into deep trouble when the government began to pursue complaints by one large corporate client that he’d defrauded them for thousands of dollars.

“I’m driving my Porsche one day in ’95 when my mobile phone rang and this friend of mine, a real-estate lawyer, tells me I’ve been indicted by the feds,” recalls Kohn.

A year later, Kohn went to prison for wire fraud.

He says that before he left for his sentencing hearing in an Asheville courtroom, he went out and laid his hand on all the animals at his Blue Ridge Mountain farm, just to say goodbye. Melanie was no longer in the picture.

Ari as a baby, with his beloved horse Bonnie Las and his second wife Becky.

After short stints in a county jail and the U.S. Penitentiary at Atlanta, he took a 14-hour bus trip to the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix, N.J.

“The bus drives into a cage, and I’m shackled like a son of a bitch, and I saw this guard drinking bottled water, and that’s when I remembered this inmate at Atlanta showing me an EPA report about how the water at Fort Dix was polluted,” says Kohn, referring to a 1960 nuclear accident in which leaking plutonium seeped into the aquifer. “That’s when I started a prison riot.”

In the early fall of 1988, Seattle newspaper headlines crackled with the horrific news that Diane Ballasiotes, a 29-year-old advertising executive with curly auburn hair, had been raped and murdered in a parking garage at Third and Yesler, shortly after leaving her Pioneer Square office for the evening. The killer was Gene Raymond Kane, a convicted sex offender who’d walked away from work release.

A group called Friends of Diane began staging rallies and circulating petitions, demanding a crackdown on repeat sex predators. When two more violent sexual assaults involving similar circumstances took place over the next few months, the state legislature began to consider a flurry of get-tough-on-crime measures.

Ballasiotes’ mother, Ida, won a seat in the legislature in 1993. Two years later, as chair of the House Corrections Committee, the Mercer Island Republican became the principal architect of House Bill 2010, which cut prison staff, limited prisoner family visits, made inmates pay for their own hygiene supplies—and eliminated college-education programs.

In urging passage of the bill, Rep. Ballasiotes, who retired from the legislature in 2002, summed up what a lot of people were thinking: “Society should not have to pay the price for crimes twice—one for criminal activities and again by feeding them and housing them, often in a fashion better than law-abiding working families in the community.”

“Ida ran,” posits Kohn, “for no other reason but to pass that bill. I can understand it, even though it is not good public policy. I mean, her daughter was murdered. I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I’d’a killed him.”

A reawakening is now underway inside the Capitol’s marble hallways. Rep. Larry Seaquist has introduced House Bill 1429, which authorizes the state to restore funding for prison college education. “It is perfectly obvious we need to do this. We need to do more than to give them a high-school diploma,” says the Gig Harbor Democrat, who chairs the Higher Education Committee. The bill, which has no dollar figure attached, is sitting in the Rules Committee; it is unclear whether it will clear Appropriations and come before the full House for consideration next session.

“It’s a tough sell,” concedes deputy prison director Wright. “Dollars are already scarce in the budget, and a lot of people will say ‘We’re having trouble educating our own children, so why give it to offenders?’ ”

“Ultimately,” argues Rep. Roger Goodman, “it is a better investment with our tax dollars to keep them out [of prison].” Adds the House Public Safety Committee chair, “I realize there’s this perception of being soft on crime, but how angry do you want them when they get out? It’s one thing to be tough on crime, but we need to be smarter on crime.”

Many legislators are keenly aware of Kohn’s post-prison ed program and its successes. “Ari’s been trying to get some funding,” notes Goodman, “and we’ve tried in a lot of ways to do that, but it hasn’t worked so far.”

That could change soon. Kohn, who has been twisting arms in Olympia for years—“whoring,” he calls it—says legislative efforts are underway to secure up to $900,000 in state funding for the program. That would be triple the amount of money Kohn is getting to bankroll his nonprofit.

“We’re optimistic the legislature will come through,” says Kohn, who in July retained lobbyist Bob Cooper of Evergreen Public Affairs in Seattle.

House Speaker Frank Chopp says he recently reviewed some basic information about the Post-Prison Education Program, and in a statement issued to Seattle Weekly last week, wrote, “The State of Washington should consider involvement in the program as a potential way to reduce recidivism.”

After operating on a shoestring since the beginning—most of the expenses for the program and Kohn’s staff of six were secured with personal and family money that has since run dry—Kohn was thrilled to get the news a few months ago that as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement involving AT&T’s sky-high prison telephone rates, a King County judge awarded almost $22 million to local nonprofits and legal-aid groups. Of that, Kohn will get $2.2 million, according to the preliminary ruling. “That really was unbelievable,” he says. “It looks like now we can really start to do something big.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, Kohn reclines in his 100-year-old craftsman perched high above Green Lake. He has a few hours to spare before hitting the highway to the Cedar Creek Correctional Center in Little Rock, Wash. Otto, his mangy orange cat, plays near a living-room table stacked with books. On top: a biography of Karl Marx. “I went to PAWS to get him,” he says of Otto. “He was older and no one was paying any attention to him, so I felt I needed to bring him home.”

Kohn clearly has a soft spot for life’s underdogs. His fractured upbringing and years behind bars are the primary forces that drove him to create a program that he believes offers a lifeline to society’s most broken people. “A lot of the people we deal with have no chance in life, especially the ones with serious mental problems and addiction problems,” he says. “They cannot make it without our help.”

It’s this Quixotic sense of righteousness and outrage that prompted Kohn, while at Fort Dix, to file an FOI request to get the summary letter from the EPA about the polluted water, and then make 500 copies of it. The fellow cons he handed it to, he recalls, used toothpaste to stick it on prison walls.

“So then the guys are standing in line at the pay phones and spreading the word about the bad water, and of course the calls are being monitored by these dumb-ass redneck cops. The riot starts when they shut the phones off. All hell breaks loose. Guards are running out of the place.”

Summoned to the office, Kohn was asked whether he disseminated the letter. “I knew I was fucked, but I told them ‘If I was you I would be more concerned with the contents of the letter, rather than who passed it out’—and I walked out.”

They made his life hell after that. “They wrote me up for minor infractions I didn’t commit, and once they planted scissors in my locker. One night, while I was filing grievances to help some other guys—which made me a hero—they burned my bed.”

Exasperated, Fort Dix authorities shipped Kohn to a higher-security federal prison in Fairton, N.J., where he spent 60 days in the hole. “I called it diesel therapy, where they keep moving you.” Later he was shuffled off to federal pens in Lewisburg and Allenwood, both in Pennsylvania. “That’s where prisoners started pointing me out and telling others, ‘He’s crazy, but fearless. He’ll help you out.’ Fuck, I didn’t know how not to fight. I’ve been fighting since I was a kid.”

Petting Otto, who has jumped up into his chair, Kohn muses, “I learned at these places that prisoners are un-people, they are not human beings.”

That lesson came to a harrowing head during his time at the Federal Correctional Institution at Ray Brook, N.Y. “We had an older inmate named Chicago. So Chicago is playing chess with this young kid, and he beats him three times in a row. The kid comes back with a shank and he cuts Chicago’s neck, and the old guy collapses. He’s bleeding to death, right in front of the guards. And he’s begging them, ‘Please don’t let me die.’ But they did. They just let him bleed to death.”

His blue eyes flaring with fury now, Kohn goes on. “That same night they find the shank in another guy’s cell. Mike’s his name. The guy is a heart patient, and they’re leading him to the hole, and he’s screaming that he needs his nitro pills. They got him shackled, and he’s saying, ‘Just drop it in my shirt pocket.’ But they won’t do it. And so he dies that night in a shower stall.”

Kohn continued writing grievances like there was no tomorrow, which infuriated the guards—to the point that he was dragged before the warden himself at Ray Brook. “He tells me that I am a threat to the security and order of running this institution. And that was, and still is, the greatest compliment I have ever had.”

Kohn was 52 when he was released on June 28, 2000. He didn’t cut his hair once during those 55 months, and left prison, he says, an impish grin creasing his face, “looking like Charles Manson.” That fall he managed to get into some extension programs at the University of Washington, and later got a degree in political science, earning a 3.82 GPA.

On his Central Building office door, Kohn still has the piece of paper with the admonishing words of that Ray Brook warden.

In the Big Room at Coyote Ridge , Gina McConnell, 42, doesn’t need to rehash the 11 years she’s spent at Purdy for a long rash of drug-fueled crimes: 17 felonies, ID theft, fraud, forgery, possession of meth. She ran away from an abusive mother at 12 and never came back. To follow would be time spent in a Nevada brothel; the death of her son; years blurred or forgotten in a haze of shooting drugs, smoking drugs, and drinking to stay numb.

The important thing now is that she’s turned it around, and that inmates here can see and hear that for themselves. Because of Kohn, McConnell spent two years at Seattle Central Community College, has a job at Goodwill Industries near her home in Longview, and will soon be taking classes at the UW campus in Vancouver.

Gazing out upon the crowd of inmates, McConnell asks, “How many of you are parents?” Almost every man raises his hand. McConnell is taken back by the number of fathers here, locked up, missing out on their child’s lives.

“It’s time you do the uncomfortable thing,” she tells them in a voice clear and confident. “Stop the excuses, get an education. Get hold of the Post-Education Program. Do it. Do it!”

As a warm wash of applause ensues, Kohn greets McConnell near the podium. With tears in his eyes, he tells her how proud he is. Then, while Robert Swindler, the convicted murderer now attending classes at Peninsula Community College, renews acquaintances with some of his old prison mates, Ginny Bromley approaches Kohn. A tall woman, she smiles down on Ari, and she says to him, “I like it when you cry.”

econklin@seattleweekly.com

 
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