Ari Kohn is the Managing Director and Founder of Post-Prison Education Program in Seattle, Washington. PPED provides complete wrap around services for formerly incarcerated people who want to pursue higher education. They work with their clients to manage their mental illnesses, council them through addictions, and prepare them with skills they’ll need to be successful in college. PPED is the only program in the country that is supporting the financial, emotional, psychological and physical needs of this population to allow for their educational gain. Ari, a formerly incarcerated person himself, was moved in 2005 to launch this one of a kind program, which has been an absolute success. After over five years of operation and hundreds of students with mental illnesses and drug additions earning educations, their recidivism rate is zero.
COUGHLIN: Tell me about how you came up with this unique idea to provide so much support for this population to really push them beyond a GED or high school diploma.
KOHN: The guy that motivated me to start the program in 2005 is in our office right now; he just got out of Washington State Penitentiary about a month ago. The way it got started was in 2005 I went to a non-profit event that was supposed to be like a welcome home party for a few men and women that were coming home from Washington prison’s. I had gone to college in the sixties but I was back in school sort of redoing my 4-year degree so I could have a higher GPA so that I could go to law school and spend the rest of my life suing governments. So I went to this non-profit thing and met this guy who is African-American and 46 at the time, and he had been coming in and out of prison since 1982. He’s mentally ill and highly addicted to crack. He got up and spoke at that event, and I was just blown away by how eloquent and compassionate and intelligent he was, so I made arrangements to take him to breakfast about a week later. I just sat there and listened to him talk for two hours and my whole orientation, since I had just spent the past four years redoing my degree, was education and I just kept thinking as I was listening to this guy, that maybe nothing can help somebody whose addicted and mentally ill but if anything can it would be getting them into a college environment.
Kohn went on to contact the heads of different social justice and advocacy programs at Washington State University. With their support in August of 2005, the program was created.
COUGHLIN: Where do you receive the majority of your funding?
KOHN: Well back then it was just my mother and I and a few small donations. We ran out of money a few years ago so our primary funders right now are Google Incorporated (http://www.google.com/about/corporate/company) and the Sunshine Lady Foundation (www.sunshinelady.org).
COUGHLIN: What would make you think to go after a company like Google to get funding and not a local state agencies or non-profits around you?
KOHN: The relationship with Google has grown over the past few years. If you work for Google you eat for free, so their employees voted to pay for their lunch one day and donate the money that they paid for their free lunch to three education non-profits. It’s unbelievable [that we were chosen] because prisoners or former prisoners are not a popular population to serve. Three non-profits shared about $1500, I think we got a money order for $499. So it was not much but it was fantastic for us. The next year we were the only non-profit they chose, and after spending time with our students the Google staff donated around $20,000 to us. Google incorporated matched those donations dollar for dollar.
Since then, Google has helped Post-Prison Education apply for and obtain multiple grants ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 respectively and continues to be a tremendous supporter.
COUGHLIN: Are you working with any larger organizations on state and national advocacy initiatives?
KOHN: We are not working with any larger organizations. We are so busy every day just trying to stay alive, so we hardly have time to look at anything but is what immediately in front of us.
COUGHLIN: Is this really the only program of its kind in the entire country?
KOHN: As far as we can tell, there is nothing else like this out there. There are some programs that will provide one or a few of the basic needs, like housing, or counseling or drug rehab. But there is not anybody that is paying tuition, books, putting a roof over you head, helping with your kids, doing everything you need to allow you to put your life together.
When people perceive the police acting in an unfair and biased manner, they will tend to have less trust in police.