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Spokane Community College student Aaron Miller – a former convict – hopes to ease transition from incarceration to education

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 24, 2017

Aaron Miller spent more than three years in prison for robbing a pharmacy to support a drug addiction. Now, the Spokane Community College student hopes to help others transition from incarceration to higher education. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Aaron Miller spent more than three years in prison for robbing a pharmacy to support a drug addiction. Now, the Spokane Community College student hopes to help others transition from incarceration to higher education. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

On his third robbery, Aaron Miller struck out.

After reading the note he slipped her, the woman behind the pharmacy counter sprayed him with bear spray. He fled, but the police caught up with him as he drove erratically, trying to clear his stinging eyes.

“There was a sense of relief the moment handcuffs were put on,” he said.

His story isn’t unique: It started with a dysfunctional upbringing, leading to addiction, then robbery, and finally, prison. What is different: Miller is now a second-year student at Spokane Community College, with plans to become a mechanical engineer.

On Monday, he was honored with the Transforming Lives Award in Olympia. The award is presented to five Washington community college students statewide.

But for Miller, that’s unimportant.

“It seems a little weird to be awarded for something that people just do,” he said.

What he’s really interested in is helping former convicts transition from incarceration into education.

Nearly 50 percent of federal prisoners are arrested within five years of their release, according to a study published in 2016. According to another study, more than 75 percent of inmates released from state prison are back there after five years.

Meanwhile, a 2013 Rand Corporation study showed that education reduced recidivism by more than 40 percent.

“The numbers are insane,” Miller said of education’s impact on recidivism. “I don’t know why it’s not pushed more.”

Miller was 24 years old when he was arrested. He was sentenced to five years in prison. At first, he said he wasn’t cooperative. He blames that largely on his addiction; he was “partial to opiates,” he said.

Then one day in prison, he had an epiphany. He was about to fight an inmate who’d ripped him off in a drug deal. That’s when another man, someone he despised, started to mock him, saying, “Aren’t you not trying to be a drug addict anymore?”

“It was the one guy I hated,” Miller said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, he was right.’ ”

That was a pivotal moment. He started with the 12-step program, got his GED and kept his head down. He was released from the Washington State Penitentiary three years into his five-year sentence.

At first, he wanted to be a welder. But he worried about the “work hard, play hard” lifestyle of manual labor. He’d gotten a taste for book learning, so he decided on Spokane Community College.

That can be a difficult transition, said Elisa Vanhoff, a teacher at the Structured Alternative Confinement (SAC) School in Spokane.

“It’s like asking me to go out on the streets and sell drugs,” she said. “I would be so frightened and unaware of what is going on. You’re asking them to go into something that they know nothing about.”

Vanhoff teaches students who have been referred to SAC by the Juvenile Court system. Most of her students have chaotic lives.

“In many ways incarceration is a shockingly positive thing for the kids,” she said.

Miller experienced that firsthand.

“The biggest barrier was going from that super structured environment to going into a completely free world,” he said of starting at SCC.

Miller said he figured out how to apply and succeed at SCC by asking questions, and not hiding his past.

Lori Hunt, the director of student success and outreach, nominated Miller for the statewide award. He was “upfront about his past experience,” she said.

Now Hunt and Miller are working together to create a program that can help ease the transition from incarceration to education. Miller works with a handful of prospective students, informally advising them.

“Since my experience and my story involves prison, I’m in a unique position to be identifiable with those people,” he said.

Currently, Miller is working with four prospective students. Prior to that he worked with three others, but none of the three had kicked their addictions and they ended up not going to college.

“To be honest, the three people who came in, they didn’t make it,” he said.

Still, Vanhoff said one of the most important things for people transitioning out of incarceration is having mentorship.

Kathryn Tribby-Moore, the lead teacher at the SAC school, said having someone like Miller to help navigate financial aid, class scheduling and other things would be invaluable for her students.

If Miller is successful in establishing a program it would fill a need in the Spokane area, said Jason Mackey, Miller’s community corrections officer. Seattle, where Mackey previously worked, has established procedures for helping convicts transition to education; Spokane doesn’t.

Mackey met with administrators from SCC several months ago to start a program. Working out the details of such an arrangement has to be done methodically. Although the Community Colleges of Spokane can’t deny admittance to someone based on their criminal record, certain programs are off-limits depending on a person’s convictions.

“It’s just the direction of the department (the Department of Corrections),” Mackey said of the program. “We are really headed in a more rehabilitative way of doing business.”

Someone like Miller, a former convict who has navigated the transition, is invaluable for jump-starting that kind of effort, Mackey said, adding, “It will keep everybody else safer if we’re giving these people skills.”

“I’ve never had one other guy like him in the 20 years I’ve been doing this,” Mackey said.

As for Miller, the importance of providing support to former convicts isn’t just about making their lives easier. It’s about keeping them from returning to prison.

“Just because there is a wall and you walk past it doesn’t mean all of a sudden you are going to change,” he said, pausing. “I was in there long enough to see guys leave and come back. And that was kind of the deal. And I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that existence.”

Correction: This story incorrectly labeled bear spray. The story has been corrected.

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