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Mary King, Terril Cotton, and Nickol Swisher

Mary King's Mission

A passionate advocate for ex-prisoners

by Eve Silberman

posted 5/29/2009

"If I were you, I'd get a murderer," says Mary King, matter-of-factly. "Second degree. The murderers have been there for twenty or thirty years-they come out and have a whole new life."

Women imprisoned for unplanned killings, King explains, often committed "crimes of passion." The victim may have been an abusive or unfaithful boyfriend or husband.

King, forty-nine, has seen her share of murderers-and other ex-convicts. For the past three years, she's been Washtenaw County coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI). Research suggests, she says, that people locked up for lesser felonies, like robbery, often renew bad habits with their old circle of friends when they're released. In contrast, she says, women who've killed in the heat of the moment often emerge from prison in their mature years determined to leave quiet and lawful lives.

The subject came up because I've been thinking about taking a roommate in my condo-and had just mused aloud that maybe I should consider an ex-felon. I tell King I'll think about her suggestion of a friendly Second Degreer.

King, two social work interns, and I are zipping along I-94 in King's dark red Prius. She's taking us to Cassidy Lake, a boot camp for young offenders northwest of Chelsea. Tall and string-bean thin, her long brown hair streaked with blond, King snaps with energy and can't seem to get where she's going fast enough. Occasionally she takes both hands off the wheel to munch at an ever-present container of grapes and strawberries. As we pull up at the camp she briskly waves us out-with a reminder that all we can take inside is a notebook and a pen.

We're escorted to a bare-bones conference room and seated around a long table with two corrections officials and a representative of POWER, Inc., a nonprofit that contracts with MPRI to find jobs for newly released inmates. A husky, twenty-something man in prison blue sits at the head of the table. The group asks him questions,

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and he politely answers with "Yes, sir" or "Yes, ma'am."

"James" (not his real name) is King's first client of the day. He has been here six months and soon will be released.

One of the camp officials, a middle-aged man with a mild demeanor, tells James that MPRI will arrange for short-term housing, clothes, and a bus pass to help him get on his feet. "People commit crimes because they have particular needs-substance abuse, paying the bills for young families," the man says. "If we can offer you [help with those] there's really no reason for you to commit crimes. Agreed?"

"Yes, sir."

King and the others peruse a prerelease assessment that the camp has prepared. Based on research and James's prior record, it concludes there's a high risk that he'll be involved in violence and substance abuse again. King, though, says she can arrange counseling for his various problems (he's already been through an "assaultive offender program" that's supposed to curb violent tendencies).

The discussion of drug use prompts James, for the first time, to dispute something in his record. "I didn't do cocaine," he says. "I got in some problems with selling drugs. I don't mess with them."

In answer to another question, he says he would like to go into a trade. "Are you willing to take any job?" King asks. "Washing dishes?"

"Yes, ma'am."

King asks James what he perceives as his biggest challenge. "Going to another authority setting," he says. He's referring to the apartment where MPRI is tentatively planning to place him. Though the program will pay his first month's rent, and possibly more, he will not be allowed to have company there, and an electronic tether will prevent him from leaving without permission. "I want to go straight to home," he says-by which he means his girlfriend's place. But his future parole officer, participating by teleconference, seems to favor the apartment.

Another soon-to-be-released prisoner agrees to a brief interview before going in for his session. "Greg" is twenty-four, with a camera-melting smile and a bounce to his steps. He says he spent a semester at Huron High, but "I'm from Ypsilanti-they didn't want me there." He transferred to Ypsilanti High and finished school. But "I'm no school person," he tells me. "I graduated to please my mama."

Although we don't really touch on how he ended up in boot camp, he's straightforward about why. "I want to have money," he says. "Clothes, jewelry, cars, females, everything."

He's grateful that he was sent here, instead of jail, but complains it's dull. "Yes, sir. No, sir," he says, mimicking the military discipline. More focused than James, he says he wants to earn degrees in culinary arts and business at Washtenaw Community College.

As we leave, King says that a good thing about boot camp is that inmates aren't influenced by the older career criminals they'd meet in prison. It moves her, she says, to see their "bright, shiny faces. So much potential, so much hope."

But, as she well knows, these young people face obstacles when they reenter the world: many have histories of substance abuse, few have money for school, and all face the horrors of the Michigan job market-made worse, of course, by their brush with the prison system.

Ironically, the economic gloom hasn't been all bad for Michigan's prisoners. In more prosperous times, former governors James Blanchard and John Engler tripled the size of the prison system. By the time Engler left office in 2003, the state was incarcerating close to 50,000 people at a cost of $1.8 billion a year-more, prisoner advocates are quick to point out, than it spent on universities.

Governor Jennifer Granholm has reversed the prison-building boom, closing fifteen prisons and camps in her six years in office. But though violent crime is down about 25 percent since the early 1990s, the state still has 48,000 people in prison, at an annual cost of $33,000 per inmate.

Granholm wants to cut the prison population by 7 percent this year alone, chiefly through early paroles. As a result, MPRI's budget is one of the few in the state that's actually growing-from $33 million this year to a requested $57 million next year. It's the most comprehensive and best-funded prisoner reentry program in Michigan history.

MPRI arrived in Washtenaw County in 2006, and King began helping prisoners in January 2007. An independent contractor, she basically functions as a liaison, connecting released prisoners to the resources they'll need on the outside.

In the past, King says, released convicts received only a bus ticket home. Now, under a "contract" with MPRI, they're eligible for short-term housing, clothing, bus passes, and, in some cases, referrals to jobs. In turn, they must agree to take part in programs that range from substance abuse treatment to a computer class, to meet with MPRI counselors and in groups, and to try to find work or schooling. If they violate the conditions, they can be thrown out of the program-or kept in MPRI as a condition of their parole. Those who make it through the six-month program attend a "graduation" ceremony where they receive a diploma and various small gifts.

Officials connected with the state program are cautiously optimistic: one says that a study last August found that MPRI participants were 26 percent less likely to return to prison than those who were released in previous years with little or nothing in the way of help.

While money is driving the state's investment in MPRI, Mary King's commitment is personal. A U-M grad who dropped out of a social work master's program when her son was born twenty-five years ago, she's outraged that blacks, Latinos, and the very poor are disproportionately represented in the penal system. Before taking this job, she coordinated a program for children visiting parents in prison and helped low-income people get housing vouchers.

Not surprisingly, King is angry about rampant discrimination against former prisoners. Some of those in jail, she says, were locked up for little more than being in the wrong place with the wrong crowd. Fury fills her voice as she tells the story of a woman who went on a date with a guy she didn't know well. He asked her to wait in the car when he went into a house-to do a drug deal. He was caught, and she did two years for being his accomplice.

King admits she agrees with some restrictions, such as banning sex offenders from working in schools. But the system needs flexibility, she insists-laws and parole conditions should "allow for supervision requirements that are tailored to individual risks." Obviously frustrated, she insists, "I just want a level playing field!"

King's task is open-ended: essentially, she's the point person for anything to do with prisoner reentry in Washtenaw County. Yet she remains so upbeat she makes it easy to forget how tough her job is. "I have a passion for this work!" she exclaims.

Washtenaw MPRI is based in the Catholic Social Services building on Packard. While King has a couple of VISTA volunteers who contact potential employers, the actual job matching is handed off to contracting organizations like POWER. "I'm the community coordinator," King explains. "My role is to help manage contractors and services they provide."

King also has made herself the county's PR person for former prisoners. She darts around giving talks at the library, civic groups, the Chamber of Commerce-anyone who'll listen to her message that an ex-prisoner can be a good employee. While there are no local figures, she often cites a statistic that only 12.5 percent of employers in this country say they would hire an ex-felon. King and her people-the VISTA volunteers and social work interns-try to reassure potential employers, telling them that they'll be eligible for a federal $2,400 tax credit and federally funded reimbursement for training ex-cons, welfare recipients, and at-risk youths.

"I'm batting fifty-fifty," says one employer who has tried out two MPRI clients. Curtis Manuel, the owner of HandyManuel, says he's very happy with one man who has worked in his repair and remodeling business for almost a year-the employee has shown initiative and improved his skills in carpentry. The other man didn't last. "Let's just say 'work ethic' and leave it at that," Manuel says philosophically.

The tax credit figured into his hiring an ex-con, says Manuel. He also liked picking someone with an organization behind him, "not just someone off the streets, with no address." He's thinking of turning again to MPRI for help during the busy summer season.

Miriam Shabazz, who gets a VISTA stipend to serves as MPRI's "workforce developer," emphasizes that potential employees are screened carefully before they are given a job referral: for example, they must participate in programs and not break parole. "It's not as risky as it used to be," she says about hiring ex-prisoners-in part because the feds now provide free bonding, which is essentially insurance against employee misconduct.

Still, it takes a lot of effort for an ex-con to land even a fast-food job. Shabazz, a native Ann Arborite, becomes emotional as she describes how some released prisoners doggedly apply for dozens of positions, facing rejection over and over. Her face glows as she recalls how a bakery she had talked to recently hired someone who learned baking in jail.

King has identified about 160 county businesses and individuals willing to hire ex-prisoners. But she says the biggest employer of all, the U-M, has a mixed record. Choosing her words carefully, she says while some university departments have "hired some folks who have felony backgrounds . . . there is a belief system at U-M that they have a policy that prohibits the hiring of felons." There is no such policy, but so far, MPRI has not placed anyone at the U-M.

Many ex-prisoners start out at the Work Skills Corporation, a nonprofit that provides employment and training to "people with barriers to employment." These are short-term (usually ninety-day) jobs, but the hope is that during that time, those placed will get both work experience and a good reference. King took me to see the Work Skills operation in one of the cavernous buildings at the former GM Willow Run plant.

Nickol Swisher, thirty-four, a slightly built blond woman, reaches into a large box and pulls out a handful of metal wedge-like objects, then runs her hands over them, checking for loose screws. They will eventually help hold cars to a conveyor belt. If she misses any screws, Work Skills will be fined $500. Initially hired for ninety days, she did so well that she was promoted and offered a permanent job-though at low, nonunion wages. In more than a year, she has made just one error.

An ex-drug user, Swisher served three years at the Huron Valley women's prison and other facilities. A mother of three, she's reserved, and something in her hard life shows in her tired-looking eyes. Her dream is to own an auto repair shop. She's loved working on cars since she was ten, and she's completed enough courses in auto mechanics at Huron Valley that she almost is ready to take a state certification test. But she's had no luck finding an auto repair job-and believes that's because she's an ex-felon. She's hoping to improve her chances by earning a certificate in auto mechanics at WCC this fall.

An MPRI grad, she is grateful for the help, which included three months' paid rent. That allowed her to save her Work Skills pay to buy a car, something most of her MPRI peers don't have. She also says the concern showed by King and her staff helped her to "trust people," no easy task after enduring a difficult childhood and prison, where she was taunted by male guards.

Swisher is involved with Terril Cotton, another MPRI client who also works at the plant. It's a strong relationship, she says, because each understands where the other is coming from.

In a separate interview, Cotton, a lanky African American man, matter-of-factly acknowledges that he did a dozen years for robbing a drug house. At first, he despaired. "You're going to be depressed!" he exclaims. "Put into an abnormal environment like a caged animal!" But he experienced an epiphany when he saw a motivational speaker on TV who asked, "What are you going to do the rest of your life?"

He began reading books and magazines in the prison library and thinking about improving his relationship with his son, now twenty-five. When he was released, he says, MPRI helped him make adjustments to the outside world. King gave him a cell phone, and, he adds gratefully, "didn't look at me like I was dumb or nothing" when she realized he'd never used one. And he was touched that when he called his mother, King insisted on talking to her too.

Cotton is earning enough to rent an apartment, sees his son regularly, and has taken up painting. He's put out more than 100 applications, mostly for janitorial work, but no bites. Still, he's optimistic- and, coming full circle from his prison experience, says he would like to do "motivational speaking" for MPRI. (Some program grads do give talks with King around the county.)

Some of the newly released prisoners are required to work with MPRI as part of their probation agreements; others are not. But King insists that she and her staff make contact with virtually every prisoner about to be released.

Not everyone who goes through the program is appreciative, according to a thirtyish man I'll call "Jeff." A former drug user and drinker, he started using as a teen, he says, "because I was curious." Recently released from jail, he says he intends to stay clean and finds the twelve-step meetings required as part of his parole "helpful." But he tells me that a lot of the guys are just cynically going through the motions-that some take the computer course, for example, mainly to earn gift certificates from Meijer.

Asked why he thinks that is, Jeff shrugs and says "ego." Used to macho environments and acting tough, he believes, the men are disdainful of the effort to turn them into model citizens.

King responds: "The gift cards are a tool we use to help those just out of prison and without an income to pay for incidentals while completing their pre-employment workshops." As for Jeff's sense that some people don't have their hearts in the program, she says, "That has not been our experience."

A more hopeful side of the program was on display last fall, when MPRI held a graduation ceremony at Washtenaw Community College.

At that point, King says, 215 men and women had received services from MPRI. "Of those, seventy-six have met our high standards for graduation"-which include finding or actively seeking work, completing the six-month case management program, and getting recommendations from their parole agent and case manager. Since then, another 297 have entered the program.

Last fall's event was a modest affair: a dozen guys, one in a suit, the rest in jeans and T-shirts, sheepishly crossing a stage to receive a diploma that recognizes them for fulfilling their MPRI contracts, along with a gift bag. A few paused to shyly thank their families and the MPRI staff.

Some of these men were receiving their first diplomas ever. "You have succeeded where others have failed," Mary King told them. "I believe in you."

see also: Rose's Good Company    (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2009.]

 

 
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