Christine Hendrickson is among Washington’s former inmates who say the corrections system, despite its flaws, has the ability to help turn someone’s life around.
Landing in prison was a wakeup call. The former heroin addict now has been clean for 10 years. With the help of a mentor, she eventually secured a scholarship and a college education, then discovered a passion for writing. She published her first story in a newspaper soon after getting out of rehab.
“Education was key,” she said of her recovery. “And meeting the right people along the way.”
However, her post-prison life has its struggles, including the stigma of incarceration while trying to find a job.
She first endured a three-year probation period with electronic home monitoring that was a “nightmare” in which she was set up to fail, she said. She finally started getting job interviews after she stopped mentioning her incarceration in cover letters, knowing the issue will eventually surface.
Hendrickson also owes $7.4 million in federal restitution for stealing software from Microsoft to pay for that one-time drug habit in the early 2000s. The stolen software would be worthless and outdated today. But the debt, and all the interest it has accrued, still needs to be repaid.
“I was given a financial life sentence,” said Hendrickson, who is looking for work.
Hendrickson shared her post-incarceration journey as part of a panel of speakers July 14 at the Kirkland Chamber Foundation’s 2022 Kirkland Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Symposium. This year’s program focused on workforce reentry for previously incarcerated people and the barriers they face.
Rowlanda Cawthon, dean of admissions of Northwest University, was among the panelists with experience working in the corrections system. After interviewing hundreds of offenders, she said, a common thread is that most people who are incarcerated have experienced serious trauma — anything from sexual and physical abuse to growing up in poverty. These traumas often hinder an offender’s self-confidence along with any hope for success beyond incarceration.
“One of the biggest barriers is how they view themselves,” Cawthon said at the symposium. “If they can have cyclical support … that is where we can step up and engage with people who have been incarcerated and create a path for them to be successful.”
One example of a path is the Graduated Reentry program (GRE), which was approved by Washington state lawmakers in 2018 and later expanded in 2021. The program provides structured supervision for incarcerated people who can serve the remainder of their sentences while transitioning into the community permanently. The state reports 78 percent of participants have successfully completed the program.
The GRE program has helped Derek Holman, 33, who was among the panelists at the Kirkland symposium. He was released in May after 68 months of incarceration for unlawful possession of a firearm.
As he serves the remainder of his sentence at a halfway house, Holman said he can finally work a real job and set an example for his 6-year-old son. The program has connected him with opportunities to receive an associate’s degree in business law as well as vocational certificates that boost his employability. In August, he hopes to move into his own apartment.
“It’s created a solid foundation for me to step back into the community successfully and build a path I can be proud of,” said Holman, noting that the GRE program has empowered him to succeed, but only because he has put himself in a position to win. “If you desire it, they’ll encourage it. It’s all up to you.”
FYI: Cost of incarceration
According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the average cost of incarceration per incarcerated person (prison and work release) is $41,200 a year, and 7,768 incarcerated people were returned to the state’s counties in 2021. A study from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy reports that $12.68 is saved in future criminal justice costs in relation to every dollar spent on programs by the Department of Corrections due to a reduction in recidivism (reoffending).