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Changing the Narrative of Formerly Incarcerated Women

December 11, 2019

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

Rows of Women sitting in chairs inside a classroom

Inmates listen to a presentation about graduated reentry during the 2019 Women’s Conference at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (Rachel Friederich, DOC Communications)

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BELFAIR – Sometimes experiencing adversity is required for your success.

That’s the advice Omari Amili shared during a lunchtime presentation before 150 women at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women’s 11th annual Women’s Conference.

The October 10-11, 2019 conference, Keys of Opportunity: Opening the Doors to Success, was filled with stories from formerly incarcerated people like Amili who shared their stories of triumph after incarceration including a panel of formerly incarcerated women who had spent time at Mission Creek.

The two-day conference was also filled with several workshops on reentry topics. Guests included district court judges, correctional staff and representatives from state agencies and community organizations. Topics included reinstating driver’s licenses, work release, community parenting alternative programs, education options, resumé building and job interviewing and paying legal financial obligations. Numerous organizations also had reentry resource exhibits.

Amili shared his story of going from criminal to published author, inspirational speaker and adjunct faculty member at Tacoma Community College (TCC) where he has dedicated his career to helping formerly incarcerated people.

Amili was born to drug-addicted parents and began stealing Nike shoes and other petty items from retail stores when he was a teen. Both his parents and numerous cousins were involved in drugs and theft. Relatives before him went to prison, so it was just a way of life to him.

“When I was with them, I learned stealing and crime is how to get the stuff you wanted.”

As he got older, he got into fights and got kicked out of school. Amili started a check fraud scheme that ultimately led to his conviction of 30 felonies when he was 23 years old.

He spent 8 ½ months in a county jail, a year in prison, followed by two more years of community supervision.

When he got out of prison, the only job he could get was a minimum wage job at a restaurant. He realized that if he stayed on his path, with no education or skills, he would “go right back to hustling. I didn’t want to trade misery for misery. There’s something I gotta do to not find myself incarcerated again.”

Overcoming Adversity

That ‘something’ was enrolling in classes at TCC. He took a lot of remedial classes, but found he loved learning and that he could succeed, because he was determined not to come back to prison.

After earning his associate’s degree, he went on to earn two degrees from University of Washington Tacoma—a bachelor’s in psychology and a master of arts in interdisciplinary studies. He was part of a master’s project creating a curriculum and workbook for a college prep program for formerly incarcerated individuals. He spent ten months as a faculty member at South Seattle College and served at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington as a juvenile justice researcher before becoming an adjunct faculty member at TCC.

He credited one of his professors with helping him look at himself differently. When he was applying to grad school his professor said instead of trying to hide from his past “use your background as an asset instead of weakness.” He said once he started being honest about his past, he was able to use his narrative to earn college scholarships and tell his story in his book Transforming Society’s Failure.

“I realized the impact that post-secondary education had on recidivism,” he told the crowd. “You can be a success and turn your life around, just like I did.”

Incarcerated Panel

Tammy Vega also shared her story of success. She was one of four former Mission Creek residents who returned to the conference to share how they overcame stigmas they acquired as a result of incarceration.

After spending two years incarcerated on a drug conviction, Vega enrolled at Skagit Valley College and graduated last year. She is now a chemical dependency counselor for Community Partnerships Transition for Solutions, a multi-agency partnership organization whose work focuses on finding resources for people returning to communities after incarceration.

“I never thought at my age, I would go back to school,” the 44-year old said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you should get your second chance.”

Three of the four panelists went to college after incarceration. All are now employed. One is a domestic violence and sexual assault prevention specialist. Another is a carpenter. The other panelist, like Vega, will be graduating from college this year with a degree in chemical dependency counseling.

The panelists talked candidly about the hurdles they faced after prison, like reestablishing connections with their families and children. Some even talked about trying to find their children again because substance abuse before incarceration resulted in terminaton of their parental rights. One panelist said she gave her daughter up for adoption because she wasn’t a fit parent before incarceration.

“I hope one day she’ll come find me,” panelist Tammy Bacigulpo said. “To tell me she hates me, or to tell me she loves me-whatever the reason. It’s important for me to know because it helps me stay on the right path.”

Vega said before incarceration she never built up a good relationship with her son and daughter because she was too busy using drugs and getting involved with other criminals.

“Cutting those people off was the scary part.” Vega said. “When I was with them, I was never alone by myself. But after being alone without them, I realized I could change. Talking about it really hurt, but it made us tighter in the end when you work on yourself and build the bonds.”