For a 25-year-old former gang member with a history of violent crime, someone who has spent most of his life in state institutions, every day “on the outside” is a major victory.
Having been institutionalized or on parole since he was 13, Victor Luna had not experienced a real Christmas since 1996. This Christmas will be his third on the outside since he was paroled in November 2003 from the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, where he served time for second-degree assault.
“So many times I wanted to go back to (crime). Money’s tight, and it’s so much easier money,” Luna said.
Each time he had such thoughts, two people helped him through it.
Suellen Pritchard and Tom Murphy are community volunteers for Going Home, the Washington State Re-entry Project, a pilot program to keep young felons with a history of serious violent crime from victimizing the neighborhoods in which they are released.
The state offender re-entry project is part of a national initiative of the U.S. Department of Justice and is a collaboration of the state Department of Corrections, local law enforcement, community service organizations and faith-based groups. In Washington state, Spokane, King and Pierce counties are sharing a $2 million federal grant, which runs out this summer. Unless new sponsors, including private corporations, can be found to keep it going, the project will end.
Candidates for the program, which is a condition of parole, are selected based on criminal history and propensity to repeat a crime. The program provides mental health and substance abuse treatment, job training, mentoring and risk assessment while the offender is institutionalized, free and under the supervision of a community corrections officer, and after supervision.
In Spokane County, all offenders but one have stayed in the program after leaving parole supervision, though they are under no obligation to do so. Among them is the one woman in the program.
An emotional investment
At the heart of the project are community volunteers who comprise Neighborhood Readiness Teams.
Pritchard, 43, and Murphy, 41, were brought into the Going Home project by Percy Watkins, a former Spokane police officer turned social worker. As community adviser, Watkins has recruited and trained 36 such volunteers for Neighborhood Readiness Teams in Spokane County over the past 28 months. There are about two dozen volunteers from the community in the program.
Spokane County’s share of the federal funds is $62,000 a year, which includes the salaries of Watkins and a part-time staff member. Watkins compares that sum with the $23,000 to $32,000 a year it costs to keep an offender incarcerated.
“For the cost of incarcerating two people, we are effectively addressing recidivism and reducing victimization,” he said.
Pritchard and Murphy are unabashed do-gooders, but the good they are doing is not for Victor Luna alone. They are helping to keep citizens from being victimized by one of the more than 600,000 offenders who are released every year back into communities throughout the nation. More than half of them will be back in jail within three years, according to the Department of Justice. Last year, more than 1,900 felons were released into Spokane County.
Luna said the biggest challenge to staying out of prison is finding work that pays well. The tattoos that cover his face and body and his criminal record have been a huge impediment during job interviews.
“I start talking, and they ask me what my goals are,” Luna said. “My goal is to stay with my kids and to stay out of prison. They say, ‘What do you mean? Were you in prison?’ And that’s it. They change and want to ask me about my tattoos.
“What’s done is done,” he tells the prospective employers of the inky teardrops running down his face and the mess he has made of his life until now. “I never hear from them again.”
Having met with Luna every week for more than a year, Pritchard and Murphy have an emotional investment in his staying out of prison.
“I was skeptical at first until I realized they are coming into my neighborhood anyway, so I might as well work with them,” said Pritchard, an advocacy coordinator for the Center for Justice, a Spokane nonprofit law office.
With a master’s degree in social work from Eastern Washington University, Murphy is director of adult treatment services at YFA Connections, an out-patient chemical and mental-health treatment facility.
“I just have a real passion for serving vulnerable populations,” Murphy said.
Yet the prospect of dealing with a violent offender evoked biases he didn’t think he had. He has since come to see Luna in a different light.
“He looks like a scary guy to some, but we see the person inside,” Murphy said.
For Pritchard and Murphy, mentoring Luna has been a process of learning from mistakes, both theirs and his.
At one point, the mentors urged Luna to return to school “when he wasn’t nearly ready,” Murphy said. “We were setting him up to fail.”
“So what?” said Pritchard. “Someday he’ll be ready.”
‘They don’t give up’
Luna, born in California’s San Gabriel Valley, came to Spokane with his family in 1994 when he was 11. Even at that age, he was already immersed in Southern California gang culture and considered himself a “Sureño.” At 13, he began an extensive criminal history as a juvenile, including arrests for theft, car chases and fighting.
In December 2002, Luna was convicted of second-degree assault after stabbing a man who allegedly fought with Luna’s girl-friend at a party. Before his parole in November 2003, he was a good bet to reoffend and a perfect candidate for the offender re-entry project.
At first, Luna said, “Yeah, I’ll do the program; just let me out.”
But after more than a year of counseling, Pritchard and Murphy have built a close relationship with him. They have helped him get his driver’s license and insurance and told him how to manage his bills. Throughout the summer, Luna worked for Mending Fences, a fence business owned by Kevin Ch’en, pastor of the Mending Fences Fellowship, which has been active in helping Spokane’s homeless population.
At the same time, Luna has been pursuing a career using his talent as an artist and tattooist.
On parole until 2007, Luna struggles with a transition back into the community, and that transition has been rough in spots. His relationship with the mother of his two small children is on-again-off-again, and he faces a reckless driving count that could cost him his license and even land him in jail again.
He said he is watched by local police, who regularly pull him over while he is driving and show up at his home.
Half his pay goes to child support, and he said he has been trying to get back on his feet so he can be more a part of his children’s lives. He said his mentors have helped him along the way.
“They didn’t tell me, ‘You got to do this, or you got to do that.’ They just helped me through it. They don’t give up,” Luna said.
Luna wishes people could walk in the shoes of people like him to see how hard it is.
“We know we screwed up, but a lot of people don’t want to see us overcome or give us a chance,” he said.
Both his mentors said Luna has experienced setback after setback, but recently they have seen a big change in him. They think he will make it.
“The only proof we have that he is improving is that he hasn’t gone back to jail,” Pritchard said.
A measure of success
Watkins said building trust is the key to the success of the Neighborhood Readiness Team.
“What it’s really about is support systems,” Watkins said. “If you don’t have good support systems and civility in your life, it’s difficult to function.”
In conversations once a week, the team builds trust with the offender, helps him or her solve problems and broker resources. The mentors talk about who the offender is associating with, about substance abuse or about employment.
“”When they come out, they come back into a community in which they have failed, and their failures are thrown back in their faces,” Percy said. “In the real world they are confronted with all these decisions” they never had before.
The team “conveys a sense of community standards,” Percy said. The offender is told, ” ‘This is how normal people do things.’ They eat it up because most of their interactions have been with other felons. To have pro-social interjection into their lives, they love it.”
“The big thing we do is focus on emotional basic needs. We all need a sense of recognition and hope. The readiness teams do that. They give them the feeling their life has worth. It gives them hope, a chance for skills and power to change.”
A status report released on Oct. 26 suggests this approach works.
Of the 82 adult offenders released into the re-entry project from Washington state institutions, nine have been convicted of new crimes within 211 days of re-entry into the community. That is a rate of 9.1 percent, compared with 20 percent of offenders not in the program who were convicted of new crimes in the same period.
In Spokane County, 19 offenders are under supervision in the program, two remain in the program after completing supervision while on parole, and two have been convicted of nonviolent crimes, said Candy Curl, grant manager for the Going Home project.
Josh Brown counts himself among the re-entry project’s successes.
A 22-year-old junior high school dropout and methamphetamine user who was convicted of residential burglary as a juvenile, Brown has been meeting with his Neighborhood Readiness Team since early summer.
In April, he was released from the penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he served most of his 18-month term for the first-degree burglary of a Spokane County home. He stole a gun and some whiskey.
Every week, he meets at a Spokane fire station with his mentors, Esa Logan, a 35-year-old clinical supervisor for Family Services Spokane, and Jeff Braviroff, a 37-year-old city firefighter.
Logan said Brown had a hard time opening up at first. He was unwilling to discuss his weaknesses. But since meeting with the Neighborhood Readiness Team, he has become close to his mentors.
“It’s good for them to trust and develop relationships because they’ve been let down so many times,” Logan said of the offenders she has helped since volunteering for the program in 2003.
She said Brown has completed many of his goals, including moving out of Brownstone Work Release, the largest halfway house for men in Spokane. He has moved in with his fiancée and 14-month-old child. He has completed a parenting class and is trying to get his driver’s license, a huge milestone in overcoming risk factors for criminal behavior.
Braviroff offers Brown advice on employment, relationships, raising kids and coping with stress. He sees himself as “a buddy.”
Since early summer, Brown, who was raised in Otis Orchards, has held down a job at Reliance Trailer Corp., prepping tractor trailers for painting and sometimes working 12-hour shifts. He would like to get his GED, become a welder and a be a good role model for his son.
He considers Logan and Braviroff friends who offer advice and support, people with whom he can share his thoughts without being judged. But he knows that he alone is responsible for his future.
“I’m keeping myself out (of prison),” he said. “These guys are just backing me up.”
Young men like Brown and Luna are absolutely worth saving, Watkins said. At the same time, they are not out creating new victims.
“It is so important that these violent people aren’t doing violent things anymore,” said the former police officer, who has seen his share of violent crime. “To have this violence stifled is worth it.”