Ari Kohn, ‘Patron Saint of Ex-Cons,’ Gets Locked Out of the Prisons

Ari Kohn—the “swaggering patron saint of ex-cons,” in the words of a December cover story by Seattle Weekly’s Ellis Conklin—is nothing if not blunt. He’ll tell it like he sees it again and again, and throw in some profanity to make his point.

His plain-spokeness and dogged persistence has mostly paid off. His Post-Prison Education Program has sent more than 1,000 former prisoners back to school, where they have earned college and graduate degrees that have kept them from returning to their old ways.

Since January, however, Kohn has been barred from entering the prisons and working with inmates because of what the state Department of Corrections calls “disparaging remarks” about its staffers. Although Kohn’s non-profit maintains offices at two prisons, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center and the Washington State Penitentiary, neither he nor his employees are allowed in.

The offending remarks came by way of a December post from Kohn on the Facebook page of a group of people agitating for the creation of a DOC ombudsman.

“I believe our efforts should be wayyyy more expansive than just an ombudsman,” Kohn wrote. “I mean really what’s the true problem, not the lack of an ombudsman, rather, DOC personnel. If you target DOC hiring practices, drive out the unmitigated assholes”--and here Kohn named a half-dozen DOC staffers--”who not only destroy families’ loved ones lives, but also DOC’s reputation, you would not need an ombudsman. “

The staffers on Kohn’s list had committed various offenses, in his eyes. One in particular, a community corrections officer, earned his ire by narrowly interpreting a law that requires offenders getting out of prison to go back to their so-called “county of origin.” That’s the county where they were first convicted, and often the place, Kohn points out, where they have neither a support system nor access to the schools that his program has deemed a good fit. (SW wrote about this problem in 2007.) The law allows DOC to make exceptions, but this particular CCO, among others, has refused to do so, according to Kohn.

“It’s become the worst problem in the state of Washington in terms of safety and recidivism rates,” Kohn contends, maintaining that ex-cons without support frequently reoffend.

Deputy Prison Director Scott Frakes was not pleased with Kohn’s post. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but your statements about DOC staff are inflammatory and confrontational at a level I can’t defend,” Frakes wrote in a Dec. 19th e-mail to Kohn.

What makes this falling-out all the most surprising is that Frakes had been a big supporter of Kohn, smoothing the way for the education program to set up offices in the prison. “There’s no doubt that if you have a college education, you’re a lot less likely to ever go to prison,” Kohn told Conklin for his piece.

Frakes was in meetings today and could not be reached. Speaking on his behalf, DOC spokesperson Norah West emphasizes that the DOC has not permanently shut down Kohn’s operation in the prisons but merely “postponed” it until Frakes has a chance to meet with Kohn in person. She says Frakes has requested that meeting but has not heard back from Kohn.

Kohn says Frakes has made no such request. Perhaps the deputy prison director is loosely interpreting his e-mail to Kohn after the provocative Facebook posting. “Before I draw any conclusions, I’ll give you a chance to share your side of the story,” Frakes wrote. “I’ll stop here until I hear back from you.”

Kohn is unrepentant. He says DOC is punishing him for “naming names” even though the department has no problem with seeing offenders outside its department called out “on the front page of the newspaper.”

To be sure, Kohn is still able to work with former offenders oustide of the prisons. He has a sprawling office in downtown Seattle, which yesterday was bustling with staffers taking calls and men recently released from prison talking over their next steps. One of them was Freddy Orr, who got out of a work release program on Friday, was picked up by Kohn, taken to breakfast, given housing essentials and then steered toward Seattle Vocational Institute. Orr intends to study carpentry.

By not being able to work inside the prisons, however, Kohn says he can’t do the six to nine months of planning that usually takes place before someone is released. During that time, he says, the program gets to know and trust prisoners it might otherwise judge too big a risk. Without that opportunity, he says he simply won’t work with some people. Sitting in his office, he waves a stack of applications in his hand, and says he’s getting ready to write the prisoners who sent them, telling them that unfortunately he can’t take them on.

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