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Reentry Panel Sheds Light on Ways to Help Formerly Incarcerated Find Work

August 24, 2022

By Robert Johnson Department of Corrections
Five people sit at a table while a person speaks to the audience during a panel discussion.

From left, Department of Corrections Reentry Division Senior Program Administrator Susie Leavell, Graduated Reentry Program participant Derek Holman, Correctional Industries Director Sarah Sytsma and formerly incarcerated person Chris Hendrickson take part in a reentry panel held by the Kirkland Chamber of Commerce. (Photo courtesy of Rob Johnson, DOC Communications Manager)

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All they need is a chance.

That was the major takeaway from a Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Symposium on July 14. The event at the Heathman Hotel included a panel discussion about workforce reentry with Department of Corrections (DOC) Senior Program Administrator Susie Leavell, Correctional Industries (CI) Director Sarah Sytsma and four others.

Three of the panelists have lived experience with incarceration, including one who is in DOC’s Graduated Reentry Program (GRE). The other, Dr. Rowlanda Cawthon of Northwest University, worked for 11 years at DOC. They talked about the importance of support and education for people reentering the community and the need for empathy, understanding and compassion on the part of employers.

"I hear a lot from people returning to our communities that they feel there is a label – almost as if it says inmate across the forehead because you have to disclose it on the application", Leavell told the crowd of about 75 business owners, executives and Kirkland city officials. "There’s a lot of pressure in that moment of just filling out an application. What we want as people, even without a criminal history, is the opportunity to present who I am today and who I strive to be. It’s no different from anybody coming out of prison. People want the opportunity and chance for change."

"I think, overall, it’s really about seeing people as people. In the end it’s about how we treat each other. That’s really all that matters.”

Cawthon mentored fellow panelist Tarra Dearbone, who was incarcerated as a teenager and is now program director of Seattle/King County Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Public Defender’s Association. Cawthon said employers must ask themselves whether they are a barrier to helping formerly incarcerated people find success once they are back in society.

"What bias do we have toward people who have been incarcerated? And does that bias prevent us from giving them opportunity?"" she asked. "We have to be diligent and committed to asking the question am I a barrier to this person succeeding."

“You have the power and the opportunity and the leverage to create opportunities for them that someone else may not create.”

Being granted an opportunity to succeed can make all the difference in the life of someone who has endured countless struggles.

“I don’t like the idea of second chances because a lot of people who have experienced prison didn’t have a first chance,” Dearbone said.

Derek Holman, who is in GRE, said he was motivated to change his lifestyle because he was incarcerated for most of his 6-year-old son’s life. He earned his associate’s degree in business law while at Larch Corrections Center and has 14 vocational certifications from work done while he was incarcerated.

“The GRE program gives me structure,” he said. “They do things such as daily itineraries and a weekly schedule, so it helps you plan and look towards the future. As a whole I support 100 percent the GRE program because it created a foundation for me to successfully step back into the community and build a path that I can be proud of. With GRE if you desire it, they’ll encourage it. If you have the self-drive to want to do better, they’ll give you every avenue possible for you to either succeed or fail. It’s all up to you. If you put yourself in the position to win, they will continue to help you try to win.”

A big part of that comes through education and resources. Correctional Industries not only teaches incarcerated people technical and soft skills but offers degree and General Educational Development (GED) programs. That continues after a person is back in the community.

“So often teaching in a classroom and getting to understand the individuals, it was really boosting their confidence levels and teaching them skills to understand that they really can do whatever they set their minds to,” Sytsma said. “It is important to provide resources not only while they’re incarcerated, but when they’re released. CI helps people who have gone through program find employment and get help after they have gotten out.”

Finding work is a major difference maker, but each of the panelists with lived experience said education helped put them in better position to succeed.

“I can’t say enough about education,” said Chris Hendrickson, who has worked as a journalist and government communications officer since getting out of federal prison. “It changed my life. It made me realize I have a brain and I actually can write.”