After prison, Washington mother walks ‘loneliest, hardest road’

State leaders look for ways to increase odds of success for those leaving prison

Melissa Jolley knows firsthand that serving your time and being released from prison do not mean you get a clean slate.

Melissa Jolley talks about the challenges she faced after leaving prison. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

Jolley, 43, was one of those parents who showed up to all of the PTA meetings and sporting events to cheer on her three kids. But behind closed doors, she was on a dangerous downward spiral that she says led her to the “loneliest, hardest road there is for people who want to make a change.”

Jolley ended up in the criminal justice system for property crimes she committed while battling addiction. She said she turned to drugs after an abusive relationship left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jolley served more than four years in prison, but relapsed immediately following her release and was returned to custody within months. She was most recently released last summer.

Her story is a common one. The state Department of Corrections has nearly 17,000 individuals in custody, and nearly 7,800 of them will be released from prison this year. Around one-third of individuals released from prison eventually go back, meaning more crime, more costs to the state and more broken families.

Like Jolley, 55 percent are parents. They will struggle with finding a job, housing, transportation and community support when they are released. The reasons are varied but one thing has become clear for state leaders: incarcerated individuals who enroll in training or education programs in prison and receive support for housing and employment after their release are less likely to commit new crimes.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs Executive Order 16–05 at FareStart Restaurant in Seattle in April 2016. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

Safer communities through successful re-entry

In 2016, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Executive Order 16–05, “Building Safe and Strong Communities Through Successful Re-entry” one year ago to improve how agencies work together to help people successfully return to their community after leaving prison.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proclaimed April 19 as Reentry Day. Reentry Day highlights how programs, policies, strategies and research can prevent someone from returning to prison. (PDF)

“One of the most significant public safety investments we can make to improve the lives of individuals and the safety of our communities is to do more to prepare people leaving our criminal justice system for a successful re-entry to society,” Inslee said at the signing.

The order directs state agencies to develop reentry-focused orientation programs for every released individual and develop a statewide correctional post-secondary education and apprenticeship plan.

This week, the governor’s office released its first annual report highlighting the progress of each state agency’s work since the executive order was signed. Some of the achievements of this Executive Order include the Department of Corrections developing release plans, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges helping individuals learn more about the internet and computers, and the Employment Security Department implementing workforce re-entry programs.

Some of the fixes suggested in the order require legislative action.

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew last year created the Washington State Reentry Council. The 15-person group brings together prosecutors, crime victims, public defenders, tribal representatives, people who have been incarcerated, housing providers, employers and state agencies to identify ways to keep people from reoffending.

Since its creation, the council has conducted seven meetings, researching ideas from across the country that could be used in Washington, and considering legislative solutions.

The Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 5077, which would allow DOC to provide rental vouchers for up to three months to any person discharged from the Washington Corrections Center for Women or the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women if the assistance will support the woman’s release into the community. The governor is expected to sign the bill later this month.

Another bill he is expected to sign, Senate Bill 5069, would allow DOC to provide post-secondary education degrees within five years of release, including job training while incarcerated. Those who are able to learn and gain skills before release and find employment are less likely to reoffend. This issue was recently highlighted by The Seattle Times editorial board’s piece “Educating prisoners pays off.”

Another bill introduced this session, House Bill 1783, focuses on controlling the interest on fines in criminal cases. The legislation has passed in the House but not in the Senate. Also being considered this session is Senate Bill 5558, allowing individuals as part of their release plan to get state issued identification; this would avoid unnecessary hardships as one begins a find housing and employment.

‘Little things make you want to give up’

In her medium-security facility, Jolley and others would daydream about the day they would be released. Thoughts of going to the movies and family time filled their minds, but Jolley soon discovered reality was something else.

“When you get out, it’s different,” she said. “Our families have their own lives and get used to life without us.”

For Jolley, the kinds of changes being promoted by the governor and Legislature make the difference between becoming a productive member of the community and cycling right back into the prison system.

After her second incarceration, she met Franklyn Smith, a transition specialist from the DOC Reentry Division who encouraged her to enroll in the pilot program Second Chance Grant. Jolley met the requirement of being at a high risk to reoffend due to the combination of her drug use, mental health history and financial situation. The grant helped pay off the interest on her fees if she showed she was paying for her own housing. Indeed, the program gave her an opportunity to pay off her fines without becoming homeless.

After being released the second time, Jolley went straight to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting for support. She knew a relapse is most likely to occur in the first 72 hours after release.

She said that NA meeting inspired her to “challenge myself. I used to think goals were stupid and unmanageable. Now I set goals, even for the little things.”

She then went to a shelter for survivors of domestic violence that charged $600 a month for rent, money she didn’t have.

“When I left, I just had a simple box, but I didn’t even have things for hygiene to make it through and no money,” she said. “You just want to give up.”

Still searching for a long-term home where her children could visit, and for a job, Jolley knew she did not want to return to her old life in the Tri-Cities. Her first big challenge was figuring out how she would afford restitution costs while also paying rent.

Making things even more difficult, the interest on her fines was 19 percent.

“If I didn’t have the interest, it would be doable, but right now I’m not even paying my fines, I’m paying interest,” she recalled. “If I don’t pay my fines, I go to jail. If I don’t pay my rent, I am homeless.”

She was able to find a job, but the struggle with paying her fines forced her to set up payment plans. Arranging this required her to take two days off work so she could travel to Benton County, present her income statement and plea for a payment plan.

“There are these little things that make you want to give up,” Jolley said.

Many low-income or mentally ill people who are released from prison don’t have the money to pay their fees or the interest they accrue. If they don’t pay, they can be charged additional fees, creating a vicious cycle that can lead to incarceration — again — for failure to pay.

But Jolley remains optimistic. Since summer 2016, she has, by most definitions, made a successful transition. She has an apartment and found employment making airplane parts for Boeing. She has goals for her life.

Left: Melissa Jolley with her supervisor Julie Sampson in front of the many Boeing parts she has learned to create. Right: Melissa Jolley at one of her work stations. (Official Governor’s Office Photos)

Jolley said she wants to earn a degree in psychology and help others who struggle with PTSD. She’s already taken steps to get financial aid for college. Full of pride, she said: “I just got my FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) approved.”

Jolley also wants to cook a holiday dinner with her family, especially her 7-year-old autistic granddaughter.

“I’d like everybody to be at the same table,” she said, happy that a holiday dinner would, at last, be more than just a daydream.