Thanks to Michael over at Corrections Sentencing for spotlighting this program in Wash state.
CEDAR CREEK CORRECTIONS CENTER, Thurston County — Chris Klein's post-prison plans consisted mainly of camping out on his parents' couch and figuring out who was going to pay for his new clothes and stereo equipment.
But when he floated those less-than-lofty ambitions last month during a new prison class for inmates about to be released, Klein received a stern look from a pastor and his parents were warned: if he couldn't find direction in his young life and learn to strive for more constructive goals, the 10 months he had spent behind bars most certainly wouldn't be his last.
When Klein walked out of Cedar Creek Corrections Center on Thursday morning, he had a job lined up at a tire store, was looking for a place to attend drug treatment and was working to regain the trust of the four siblings he had repeatedly ripped off to support his nearly $300-a-day OxyContin habit.
"That class got me to thinking there's more important stuff than getting new stuff," said Klein, 20.
As the first graduate of the new "Preparing for Release" class offered by pastors John and Sylvia Peterson, Klein is being closely watched by the state Department of Corrections (DOC). Officials hope the course that strives to provide inmates with a set of prerelease goals and values could help reduce recidivism and ease the difficult transition into the real world.
The Petersons designed the Preparing for Release program more than three years ago, but it wasn't until this year that prison administrators gave them the green light to try it out at four alternating Western Washington state prisons. Alice Payne, the state DOC administrator for family programming, said the class fits in with the agency's recent push to assist offenders in their re-entry into communities.
Inmates who enroll in the course commit to four full-day classes, two of which are attended by family members. Participants read through workbooks, filling out sections about things they want to do when they get home, and write out their goals.
The Petersons have spent years of preaching to and mentoring inmates at McNeil Island Corrections Center. The Steilacoom, Pierce County, couple said they kept hearing the same concerns from women visiting their spouses, boyfriends or children behind bars.
"They said, 'I'm terrified when he comes home I'm going to have to give him a checkbook,' " Sylvia Peterson said. "They didn't need that financial burden."
Class participants learn it is normal for incarceration to drastically change their relationships with their families. They are taught about the importance of changing old habits, dropping friends who are a bad influence and the stress that money will play on their relationships.
"Release from prison is a huge stress," Sylvia Peterson said last Saturday as members of the Cedar Creek prison class wrote in their workbooks. "They're structured in here. They're told what to eat, when to get up and what to wear. Then they get out.
"It's a whole lot safer to talk about the checkbook issue in here," she said, adding that arguments about money can often spur a drug relapse or domestic violence.
Suzanne and Randy Klein, of Everett, signed up for Preparing for Release classes in a last-ditch effort to help their son, Chris. Suzanne said she couldn't bear the idea of watching her youngest son — a child she long babied — continue to do nothing with his life.
Klein, who arrived two hours late for the first class and was initially surly and unresponsive, now talks about responsibilities, albeit begrudgingly.
Sylvia Peterson is pleased with the growth she has seen in him.
"I didn't like him at all. I thought he was immature, arrogant and manipulative," she said of their first meeting. "He is the man who grew the most. He started to take responsibility for his own life. He quit thinking his parents were there to rescue him from his past mistakes."
During last weekend's class, inmate Jeremy Butts, of Grays Harbor County, rocked his 3-month-old son, Helaku, in his arms and shared with classmates his goals upon his Dec. 27 release: marrying the mother of his three young children, getting his commercial driver's license and washing his dog. "If you want to be something and you want to change, this gives you the tools," said Butts, who is serving time for unlawful possession of a firearm. "I have an addiction to drugs and this offers me the support I need."
Edna Ferry, Butt's 27-year-old fiancée, said the class has allowed her to put her "fears, concerns and ideas on the table."
Before graduating, the Petersons have inmates and their families come up with a re-entry agreement.
Offenders are encouraged to bring the contract with them when they meet with their community corrections — or probation — officer. But, Sylvia Peterson said, if the offender breaks the agreement, the DOC won't use it as a reason for punishment.
"When the offender gets home they have that as accountability," she said. "If the offender breaks the contract their family has a decision to make on how that affects their relationship. We want families to quit enabling men to stay in their cycles of misbehavior."
On Thursday, Klein looked around his messy bedroom and said he felt overwhelmed. After meeting with his community corrections officer, where he talked about the goals he formulated during the Petersons' class, he was preparing for dinner with his siblings.
Suzanne Klein placed her son's course diploma in his bedroom. She said she reviewed the family re-entry plan before he returned home.
"I feel a lot better since I took that class," Suzanne Klein said. "He has to take responsibility of everything. Before, I felt like it was my responsibility, that's how I enabled him."
Katie Klein, 18, greeted her brother with a "welcome home" sign and a hug. She said the family used to have to lock their bedroom doors to keep him from stealing. Now, she feels like she can finally trust him.
"I like him not on drugs," she laughed.