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Formerly Incarcerated on TRAC to change their lives

March 24, 2022

By Danielle Jimenez

Department of Corrections

TRAC Graduates pose in front of TRAC Banner

BJ Silipa (Front left), Meggan Weber (Front right) Jennifer Phrampus (Back Left) and Tanya Patterson (Back right) pose for a photo during Class 61’s graduation ceremony at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW), March 11, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Judith Gerren, MCCCW Public Information Officer)

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When Amber Fisher went to prison in 2018, she had no idea she would leave the Department of Corrections better mentally, physically, and financially than when she went in.

She gained invaluable life skills, became a member of a local laborers union within a few weeks of reentering the community, and gained the only father figure she’s ever known.

“I can call him about anything, and I didn't expect that type of relationship or a role model with somebody – I've never had a male figure in my life,” Fisher said, referring to her Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC) instructor from Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW), John Brown. “I grew up without a father and this man has taken on that role. It's been so effortless that I can call and count on him no matter what.”

The TRAC program at MCCCW is a union pre-apprenticeship program to prepare women to enter one of four building trades including carpentry, laborer, iron work, and the cement masonry. It’s not an easy program to complete, but when graduates receive their certificates, they are granted a preferred-entry status into one of those trade unions.

The five women of Class 61, who all graduated in the last month, had to persevere to get through the largest peak in COVID-19 cases yet. The facility was quarantined for 39 days, leaving Fisher and others in the class wondering if they would be able to complete the program before their upcoming release dates.

“I was uncertain about my graduation and being able to finish,” Fisher said. “It was something that I had worked extremely hard for, and everything was just so uncertain.”

Brown said the class went through much more than other classes prior to graduating.

“This class will have the distinction of being the longest TRAC class in recorded history because COVID jumped in our life in a big way,” Brown said. “It probably ran around 25 weeks.”

But Fisher said her instructor and mentor promised he would get her through.

“John Brown made a commitment to me that I didn't need to worry, that things are going to be taken care of and he has stuck to his word 100 percent in every way,” Fisher said. “He's never let me down!”

Brown even threw Fisher an early graduation ceremony because she was being released before everyone else.

“It was at a moment in time where the graduation didn't even matter; I just wanted the certificates,” Fisher said. “But Brown pulled something together for me. I got to take pictures with my certificates with my hard hat and my vest on ¬— I couldn't have asked for anything more special than that.”

To become a member of the TRAC program at MCCCW, it is a competitive entry. Incarcerated individuals must have no major infractions, must apply within a timeframe near their release date, be interviewed, and take a math and physical test. The physical test included lifting 80-pound sandbags or rebar, using a wheelbarrow, and digging sand and gravel.

“It gives us an idea of where they're at physically and it really goes beyond that, because tryouts are a two-way street,” Brown said. “If this isn't for you, now is the time to identify that because these would be the things that you'd be required to do in TRAC.”

During training women explore welding, carpentry, and many facets of the building trades. They dig ditches, carry equipment, and it is physically demanding.

“I will never forget the days when my body was aching, and my shoulder was bruised and ripped and raw only to be required to be in the gym that next morning,” Fisher said emotionally at the virtual graduation ceremony she attended from her new home in Seattle.

But the hardest part for many was the homework, which they said felt like it went on forever and never stopped, not even during quarantine.

“During the COVID outbreak, programming was shut down,” said Steven Peterman, construction trades manager for the TRAC program. “We weren't training, but academically we piled it on cause the academic portion of the TRAC program is very, very demanding. Never once did, they falter in their commitment, and we didn't falter in our commitment to them.

Being in quarantine, some of them contracted COVID.

“Imagine 20 of your closest friends, sick and staying focused and committed — they did all that,” Peterman said.

Fisher said although hard, the homework was rewarding.

“And they give you so much homework too, where it's just embedded in your mind,” Fisher said. "It’s a lot of construction math, but even just for life skills. Now it's like I could do fractions in my sleep.”

Upon reentering the community, the women will have continued support and assistance from MCCCW and the instructors of the TRAC program, plus many groups who support those reentering in the community.

“John’s been my rock!” Fisher said. “I went yesterday shopping for my work tools and clothes. I called him, and he walked me through the whole process. He said ‘you need this,’ and ‘this is the brand that you need,’ and ‘this is the make that you need.’”

“Seeing all the community partners and involvement motivated me,” Fisher said. “ANEW [Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Employment for Women] paid the $500 initiation fees. They also gave me $275 for boots and clothes, and they gave me $250 for tools. So now I have everything I need to get started for the job.”

Community programs like Weld Seattle, ANEW and many others, help formerly incarcerated have successful reentry.

When Fisher was released, things didn’t go perfectly as planned, the house she was supposed to stay at didn’t receive her payment and when she arrived with her bags, she was told she couldn’t stay there. After being denied housing, she called her friend who was a former TRAC program graduate, who vouched for her to stay at a safe home run by Arms Around You — a nonprofit reentry resource and referrals program that serves formerly incarcerated individuals reentering, homeless, and victims of domestic violence and substance abuse.

They went out of their way to get her housed and now her friend from TRAC is her roommate.

This wasn’t her only challenge; graduates need to have a drivers license and auto insurance to join a union. Fisher never had a license nor insurance. ANEW helped her pay for everything. She took the written portion of the driving test three days after being released from MCCCW and failed it.

But being in the TRAC program had taught her perseverance. If they failed their homework, there was no bad grade, they were given the homework packets back again and again until they got 100 percent.

So, failing the driving test didn’t faze Fisher, and she was back the next day and passed the test.

“I passed the driving and the written test within the first 4 days of me being released,” Fisher said. “Then, on the 5th day, I got insurance. I’m a licensed and insured driver for the first time in my entire life.”

Then Fisher faced challenges to become a member of a union. She arrived before anyone else to orientation at 4:45 a.m. but she missed the sign where she was supposed to go because someone opened the door for her, blocking the sign.

She waited for hours before finding out she was in the dispatch area instead of where the orientation was at and missed it. Where many would’ve left discouraged, she looked at it positively.

“Instead of letting it get me down I said, ‘Well, the benefit is I got to learn what it looks like to be dispatched,’” Fisher said optimistically.

The second time she came for orientation she brought all the paperwork she needed. But this time saw a sign she hadn’t seen before that they will not make copies of paperwork and to bring your own. Fisher was not going to miss out on orientation this time.

“It's five o'clock in the morning and I told myself, there's no way that I can leave here right now without my orientation,” Fisher said.

She saw a hotel across the street and did some critical thinking.

“I asked the man at the front desk If I could pay him to make the copies,” Fisher said. “He agreed and that was my blessing. I got my copies at five in the morning from some hotel across the street for five dollars.”

Fisher was not always so positive and would not always have handled challenges this way.

“My incarceration began in 2018,” Fisher said. “I was still struggling with some internal things, and I wasn't conforming to their therapeutic community program, so they terminated me and revoked my DOSA [Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative], which in turn gave me 19 months added to my sentence.

“Instead of letting that be like something that defeated me, I took it as ‘OK. I need to do something different.’ So, I went to school for computer programming, and I completed that program from Tacoma Community College.""

Then she transferred from Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) to MCCCW and heard about the TRAC program, she had to decide what she wanted her future to look like and it was a bigger choice ahead of her than she expected.

“I was also now eligible for work release, but the TRAC program was starting the next month. I had a decision to make — either to go to work release and leave prison or go to TRAC? The instant gratification inside of me wanted to do work release.

But then I did some heavy contemplating and thinking about what do and what I want my future to look like. I literally had one day to decide — so TRAC it was.”

Fisher decided to stay in prison and complete the most physically and mentally grueling thing she had ever done rather than leave early.

It was a huge leap of faith, and in the end, she made the best decision she could’ve made because later she found out she was not eligible for work release after all. If she wouldn’t have applied for TRAC when she did, she wouldn’t have had all the opportunities she has today.

“The TRAC program ignited a fire in me, I was finally able to see and believe in my potential,” Fisher said. “I think that helps people, it plants the seed, and it gives opportunity for growth. But it's up to the individual to take the steps necessary to make this their new way of life in their new opportunity.”

At the virtual graduation ceremony, graduates on the outside and those still inside MCCCW gave words of encouragement and thankfulness to each other and the staff and teacher assistants that helped them get through.

“I’m so proud of you guys, you learned how to roll with the punches and deal with the cards that COVID dealt,” said Hilary Shoop, a TRAC graduate and instructors’ assistant, during the ceremony. “Besides the physical aspects of being in the trades, TRAC really does teach you so much more about life. I wasn’t only your mentor, but you guys became my friends and I love you all so dearly.

Another graduate echoed her thankfulness.

“I want to take a minute to voice my gratitude to the wonderful people that care enough to bring this program here,” said Meggan Weber, one of the TRAC 61 graduates in attendance. “To the instructors that build us up and teach us valuable skills — like work ethic and how to problem solve through any situation. Thanks for taking us broken women and helping us transform into confident, competent, secure, worthy employees and people. I also want to thank all the people behind the scenes — staff, administration and security that believe in us and have made this possible.”

Brown called up each graduate by name allowing each to share words they carefully crafted on folded up pieces of paper they pulled out of their pockets. Laughs, tears and smiles were seen all around in those in person and those attending virtually from their cars, houses and offices.

Not just graduates and DOC staff were in attendance, but thanks to Fisher and others who were formerly incarcerated, also the Interim King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall. She met Fisher a few weeks before the ceremony at a program called Walk it Out sponsored by Weld Seattle.

“In talking to Fisher and Marie that afternoon I was enriched by hearing their stories. I was truly humbled by the conversations that day and heartfelt sharing. I knew that I somehow wanted to be in service to those leaving incarceration,” said Sheriff Cole-Tindall, who was a guest speaker at the ceremony.

Fisher said now that she’s a member of union and an apprentice, she started working last week and has been offered a lot of different jobs.

“I don't just see myself being a construction worker,” Fisher said. “I've been offered jobs at all different places. I've been going to different organizations that I've connected with since I've been released. And I'm starting to see that I'm valuable.”

Fisher will be making around $25 an hour, plus a $13 per hour benefit package that includes retirement and health insurance. She will get raises every 1,000 hours. After 6,000 hours she will graduate from the program and be a Journeywoman.

Fisher said she doesn’t want to stop there. She wants to give back by becoming a mentor for others reentering the community because she has seen the value a mentor like Brown can bring into her life.

“Within three weeks of release she is not only the newest member of Seattle Laborers, Local 242, she is now also certified as a peer-mentor counselor by the state and completed 40 hours of training, so the girl’s on fire, making all the right moves and the doors are just opening up,” Brown said.

The next TRAC class starts in late April and a whole new class of women will have their lives changed by working alongside the dedicated program instructors and staff at MCCCW who work to build their self-esteem and treat those who are incarcerated with respect and hope for their futures.

Christopher Poulos, Director of Person-Centered services at DOC, and a formerly incarcerated individual himself, spoke at the TRAC graduation ceremony and said it perfectly.

“For successful reentry to occur, we need to have internal healing within ourselves, met with external opportunity in the community, and that’s why I love TRAC,” Poulos said. “I love seeing staff, currently incarcerated, and alumni here — we’re all human beings in this existence walking through this together, doing the best we can, and helping each other. That’s how we’re going to succeed.”

At the end of the ceremony Brown called on the radio for all staff to stand down as graduates sounded off their class motto at the top of their lungs.

“Class 61 on your feet,” Brown said as they all stood to attention.

"Get it done!” Brown shouted.

The graduates responded at the top of their lungs, “61!”

Brown replied, “61!”

They yelled back, “Get it done!”

TRAC Class 61 graduates:

  • Amber Fisher
  • BJ Silipa
  • Jennifer Phrampus
  • Meggan Weber
  • Tanya Patterson