Pioneering Positive Changes

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By Casey Coughlin

Ari Kohn is the Managing Director and Founder of Post-Prison Education Program in Seattle, Washington. PPED provides complete wrap around services for formerly incarcerated people who want to pursue higher education. They work with their clients to manage their mental illnesses, council them through addictions, and prepare them with skills they’ll need to be successful in college. PPED is the only program in the country that is supporting the financial, emotional, psychological and physical needs of this population to allow for their educational gain. Ari, a formerly incarcerated person himself, was moved in 2005 to launch this one of a kind program, which has been an absolute success. After over five years of operation and hundreds of students with mental illnesses and drug addictions earning educations, their recidivism rate is zero.

COUGHLIN: Tell me about how you came up with this unique idea to provide so much support for this population to really push them beyond a GED or high school diploma.

KOHN: The guy that motivated me to start the program in 2005 is in our office right now; he just got out of Washington State Penitentiary about a month ago. The way it got started was in 2005 I went to a non-profit event that was supposed to be like a welcome home party for a few men and women that were coming home from Washington prison’s. I had gone to college in the sixties but I was back in school sort of redoing my 4-year degree so I could have a higher GPA so that I could go to law school and spend the rest of my life suing governments. So I went to this non-profit thing and met this guy who is African-American and 46 at the time, and he had been coming in and out of prison since 1982. He’s mentally ill and highly addicted to crack. He got up and spoke at that event, and I was just blown away by how eloquent and compassionate and intelligent he was, so I made arrangements to take him to breakfast about a week later. I just sat there and listened to him talk for two hours and my whole orientation, since I had just spent the past four years redoing my degree, was education and I just kept thinking as I was listening to this guy, that maybe nothing can help somebody whose addicted and mentally ill but if anything can it would be getting them into a college environment.

Kohn went on to contact the heads of different social justice and advocacy programs at Washington State University. With their support in August of 2005, the program was created.

COUGHLIN: Where do you receive the majority of your funding?

KOHN: Well back then it was just my mother and I and a few small donations. We ran out of money a few years ago so our primary funders right now are Google Incorporated (http://www.google.com/about/corporate/company) and the Sunshine Lady Foundation (www.sunshinelady.org).

COUGHLIN: What would make you think to go after a company like Google to get funding and not a local state agencies or non-profits around you?

KOHN: The relationship with Google has grown over the past few years. If you work for Google you eat for free, so their employees voted to pay for their lunch one day and donate the money that they paid for their free lunch to three education non-profits. It’s unbelievable [that we were chosen] because prisoners or former prisoners are not a popular population to serve. Three non-profits shared about $1500, I think we got a money order for $499. So it was not much but it was fantastic for us. The next year we were the only non-profit they chose, and after spending time with our students the Google staff donated around $20,000 to us. Google incorporated matched those donations dollar for dollar.

Since then, Google has helped Post-Prison Education apply for and obtain multiple grants ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 respectively and continues to be a tremendous supporter.

COUGHLIN: Are you working with any larger organizations on state and national advocacy initiatives?

KOHN: We are not working with any larger organizations. We are so busy every day just trying to stay alive, so we hardly have time to look at anything but is what immediately in front of us.

COUGHLIN: Is this really the only program of its kind in the entire country?

KOHN: As far as we can tell, there is nothing else like this out there. There are some programs that will provide one or a few of the basic needs, like housing, or counseling or drug rehab. But there is not anybody that is paying tuition, books, putting a roof over you head, helping with your kids, doing everything you need to allow you to put your life together.

COUGHLIN: Tell me about your students and why your program is working.

KOHN: Since the program has grown and is more well known we currently have around 700 applicants. The most students we have ever supported at one time, which was in the beginning of this year, was 44. (The average for PPED is 25.) The way we serve them really goes to why we are successful.

Two years ago, we got a grant to have an outcome data study done, so that researchers could look at what the recidivism rate (over a five year period) on our students was and report it back to the legislature. They reported back to the Washington State Senate and told them that we have had nobody recidivate.

So then the question was why? The researches found that the reason we were successful had basically nothing to do with the education, it has to do with the fact that we meet the needs. It’s shared housing, public transportation- live cheap, live frugal, get your degree.

One of the researchers threw a fact out to me that blew my mind; he said that half of the people that are going to recidivate do so in the first 3 months. As soon as we heard that number we knew why we were so successful. We pick them up the day after they get out of prison, get them in the office, get them into housing and basically blanket people with whatever they need. That could be medication if they are mentally ill, help overcoming addiction, tutoring to get ready for admission tests, housing, groceries- that’s just always what we’ve done. We didn’t do it because we knew if we got them even to the first day of the fourth month we have just dramatically reduced their chances of recidivism. We just knew we had to do that for them to be successful. You get them to the first day of the second year and you’ve more than flipped the odds; they are almost not going back.

The cool part about a college campus or a tech school really isn’t all just the curriculum. That’s a more clean and sober environment then other places. The major role that education does play is it’s sort of the carrot that you hold out in front of somebody; it’s the hope and the opportunity. You’ve got to give people that have been locked up hope that they can have a different life. If you don’t then when they walk out of the prison they come out hopeless. But if you give them real concrete hope that they can really believe in then when their feet hit the ground the first day out of prison they are focused on the future and not on being stupid.

COUGHLIN: Where are you sending your students to school?

KOHN: Any accredited Community College, Trade School or University in Washington.

COUGHLIN: Do you provide any in-prison services or just strictly out-of-prison?

KOHN: We can’t afford do anything in the prison because we can’t afford to do what we do out here. But we are in the prisons all the time. The way we let people know that there is hope, that there is opportunity, is by taking our current students back into the prisons. When you have people who have been locked up, sort of telling them “been there done that” it is a real concrete opportunity. It’s life changing.

COUGHLIN: What is the limit on how much you will spend on a student and what is the average cost?

KOHN: There is no cap and there is probably nothing typical. Over the years we have changed the kind of students we are helping. Now we weed out and maybe won’t help somebody who we feel can make it on their own. We realized that there are tremendous amounts of people coming out that are diagnosed with a serious mental illness; so our costs have sky rocketed.

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