In 2013, at the urging of my staff, I went to visit the Black Prisoner’s Caucus at the Monroe State Correctional Complex. I had driven past the prison many times on the way to hiking in the mountains, but this time we took a right turn and drove to the front gate.
We were let through the main gate and then pulled up to a watchtower. A bucket was let down by a rope so that the SPD officer tasked with my security could relinquish his gun. We then proceeded to the main administration building, a substantial old brick building with ancient wood furnishings, where we met the rest of our party and checked in.
Our group was mainly city employees and contractors who had formed our new Career Bridge program, a reentry program for felons leaving prison.
A little backstory: In early 2012, the city had seen a spike in murders. I had declared it an emergency and had been scrambling for better approaches. I went to every murder site to be briefed by Deputy Chief Jim Pugel on what SPD knew. I met with community groups to hear their ideas. In a meeting with a group of black pastors they pointed to the high recidivism of felons returning to the community and offered a solution. Pastor Ricky Willis said “Mayor, we know which men are prepared to try and make it. They need jobs and housing but they also need a community that will help support them. Partner with us, bring your resources and we will bring the community support network to help these men.”
From my years of community activism this made a lot of sense to me. People are motivated by a goal of better future, but it’s the relationships with others that bring us back to the fight again and again. Making it after a felony conviction would be a tough fight and well meaning government programs would not be enough.
Our Human Services Department Director, Dannette Smith, and OED Director Steve Johnson were highly motivated too. Within a short time they brought me back a program that would combine human services programs, job training programs, and, most critically, the community support network offered by churches. We would start with the black churches and then expand it demographically. We redirected $210,000 of existing dollars and launched it as soon as we could. Many months later, we were now in Monroe to meet some of the first cohorts to start the training program.
We went through a big locked door to enter the prison foyer. With doors locked behind us and in front of us they checked IDs again and put us through a metal detector. We then entered the main prison, down a corridor and into an open area. Our walkway was fenced off from a field filled with men, many of whom stopped to watch us, some calling out to us. We passed silently. We then entered another building, walked down a hallway, and went into a room to meet the approximately forty men of the Black Prisoners Caucus.
Each one stepped forward looked me in the eye, gave me a firm handshake, and introduced himself. I’m a Mayor, I know handshakes, and I smiled because somebody had been working on handshakes!
We sat in a circle and opened by going around the circle to introduce ourselves, to be followed by Q and A. The Caucus had been formed in 1972 by men who were determined to support each other and improve their lot in life. They had fought for recognition within the prison system and won it. Some of the men would be there a long time and this was how they would contribute. Others would be there a shorter time and were determined to not repeat the mistakes that led them to prison.
In the circle I heard a lot of resolve to do better and pride in what they were doing for each other. I could also see the anxiety of those contemplating their release from jail, as well as fear of the challenges that lay in front of them. The risk of failure was very real and they knew it.
One of the men recited the “Five A’s” of the Career Bridge training program: Attendance, Attitude, Ability, Adaptability, and Accountability. You had to work on all five. When it came to me I recited back the Five A’s and let them know it was pretty good advice for a Mayor, too. While my attendance was strong, I was still working on the rest. I told them how we formed the program, and that my main goal here was to listen to them.
It came around to Mary Flowers, a black Human Services Department employee who was present at most of our staff meetings, but who at the time I barely knew. She spoke some of the history, but then she spoke of the damage to the community of our system of mass incarceration. The emotions of the moment got to her as she shouted “they are destroying our communities, they are taking away our men!”
I cannot attempt to describe to you the effect all this had on me. It is one thing to see the statistics. It is another to listen to the people living it.
I am far from the first to see the need for change. County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has called for comprehensive reform, telling me: “We have mass systems for arrest, prosecution and incarceration, we now need mass systems of reentry.” The book “The New Jim Crow” details the structural racist bias that feeds these systems of mass incarceration.
As I have subsequently learned more about the Black Prisoners Caucus from Mary Flowers, I also realized Career Bridge was not my idea, nor was it Pastor Willis’s. The idea was seeded by the Caucus and reached us. The prisoners themselves are the true agents of change in this story. They were waiting and hoping for the seed to take root.
In fall 2013 we budgeted $400,000 for maintaining what we started, and proposed another $400,000 in 2014 to expand Career Bridge. The initial evidence from the first cohorts was very strong. We also proposed expanding our Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative to 18-21 year olds. Right now we just say, “We’re done at 18.” I don’t treat my own kids that way, and neither do most of us.
We did so because it was good for these men, good for public safety, and good for the community. Black lives matter. Unfortunately, the City Council rejected these expansions. It was an election year and there were other priorities.
They diverted the Career Bridge money to an audit. It finally came back in June 2015 to no fanfare. It is a very positive report. Eighty one percent of the men ended up with jobs, which while not the sole indicator of success, is a very powerful one. The audit confirmed Career Bridge as “a creative approach to combining public funds with community-based activism.” While the audit suggested improvements, it confirmed that “participants face multiple barriers to self-sufficiency and Career Bridge is increasingly well-equipped to address these needs.”
With the skeptics now answered we should expand Career Bridge. While not in the latest proposed budget, there is still time. And in our booming economy there is certainly sufficient money. It is a long-term solution to the almost two-year rise in shootings and violent crime. Most important, it can be a tangible and effective part of fixing our broken system.
As we stood up to end the meeting in Monroe, the men had only one request for me. “Will you promise not to forget us?” One of the rewards of being a former mayor is that I have many fewer commitments to remember and keep. This, however, is one promise that weighs on me. These individuals are determined to build a better life for themselves and their community. We all benefit when we give them effective tools to do so. Let’s do so.
Mike McGinn was the mayor of Seattle from 2010 to 2014.