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Readying themselves for release

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

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Mission Creek offenders attend conference that teaches how to transition back into work, school

The worries that Elizabeth Klein has are typical for any mother.

She wants to give her 5-year-old son a good life, provide for him and protect him.

However, Klein's situation differs from other mothers in one way — she's trying to do that from prison.

Klein is one of more than 300 inmates who live at the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women near Belfair. In December, Klein will be eligible for work release.

Her most pressing anxiety right now is ensuring a smooth transition from prison life back into the real world.

"Being a mother is my biggest priority right now," she said. "The biggest need is to have a successful transition and not fall back into old ways."

Last week, Mission Creek Corrections held a conference for more than 170 offenders to give them tips and lessons on how to transition back into the real world, said Judith Gerren, administrative assistant for the corrections center.

The two-day conference was open to any offenders who had not had any infractions and had less than four years left in their sentence. This is the seventh year the facility held the conference.

Attendees sat through workshops to help offenders build confidence, obtain drivers' licenses and find jobs.

And they were there to soak up as much information as possible.

In a Friday workshop on how to attend college, offenders asked question after question on how to find scholarships, what different programs and majors meant, and the cost of attendance at different schools.

As offenders don't have access to the Internet, professor of business tech from Tacoma Community College Joyce Oswald taught the women to use paper applications and write letters to colleges to get the information they need.

Some women asked whether they should avoid talking about their past or time served in the corrections facility in college applications.

"The more honest you are, the more interesting you are and the more you stand out," Oswald told the group. "People want to know your life story and why you need the scholarship."

Offenders even answered one another's questions, sharing personal experience about applying for grants, choosing classes and even earning college credit while serving their sentences at Mission Creek.

The main focus of this year's workshop was to help offenders overcome trauma. Workshops focused on understanding the trauma and how it impacted the lives of the offenders. Staff who attended offered resources for those dealing with trauma.

"Every individual has trauma that they endure sometime in their life," said offender Angela Patterson. "Knowing which direction to go and our options is great."

Patterson said she is scheduled for release in two years. She is serving a six-year sentence for theft.

Patterson said the conference helped her understand that even though she made mistakes, she can still recover and become a successful member of society.

"Coming here saved me," Patterson said. "But while I've been here, I've learned a lot that will help me once I get back out. I can start healing and become a productive member of society."

Klein said that understanding the trauma in her life has been a big part of her recovery.

"There's something that led each of us to prison, and that has to be addressed," she said.

Klein is serving a 64-month sentence for crimes related to drug abuse. Half of that time, she will be eligible for work release, starting in December.

The conference also gave women offenders the opportunity to hear speakers from the Washington State Supreme Court of Appeals, the National Association of Women Judges and Zonta International, an organization that aims to empower women through service and advocacy.

"It changed our ideas about how people on the other side feel about us," said offender Megan Whitlock, adding that the conference made her feel like there was a place for her in society as an advocate for women — especially those who were incarcerated — once she is released. "It sparked my interested. Maybe there's a role for one us."

Klein said there aren't a lot of resources available for women offenders because the system generally caters to men. The conference gave her a chance to speak with officials who understood problems specific to women and could help her solve those.

One main barrier is the number of Oxford Houses, or drug- and alcohol-free homes for offenders on work release.

Klein hopes to live in the

Tri-Cities to be close to her son, but said the number of female Oxford Houses is low.

She said that Benton County can host 40 male offenders on work release, but only six female offenders.

Many counties across the state have the same problem, Klein said.

If she can't find sober, drug-free housing, Klein will have to stay at Mission Creek until she is released.

She worries that if she is released without having found work, she won't be able to support herself or see her son.

"I'm not the only mom going through this, trying to support myself the right way," she said. "This is a big barrier for a lot of moms here."

Klein said the conference gave her a chance to meet with different organizations and professionals, and learn how to become employed again whenever she is released.

She also plans to return to school, and learned how to do so through the education workshop at the conference.

Her goal is to finish her cosmetology degree and eventually become an independent business owner.

"This is my first time in prison, and definitely not what I had planned when I was a little girl," she said. "But my son is my life, so I'm going to find a way to transition back into his life, even if it's tough."

Copyright 2015 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: October 29, 2015

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