SEATTLE — Carolyn Presnell began serving her second, 15-month stint at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in October 2015, after pleading guilty to selling cocaine to an undercover Seattle cop, then leading police on a high-speed chase and crashing her car in Seattle’s Meadowbrook neighborhood.
Fast forward to today: Presnell is the director-in-waiting of the 1426 Project, a collaborative partnership of local nonprofits, governmental entities and corporate sponsors aimed at providing housing, jobs, treatment and therapy to people reentering the community after being incarcerated in state prisons or county jails.
The goal: reduce recidivism rates and combat homelessness and addiction by providing a one-stop shop to ease the transition of formerly incarcerated people into the community and offering them a space to heal from the trauma that led to their involvement in the criminal justice system.
It won’t be a drop-in center but instead a centralized resource center for people already receiving services or involved in programs offered by the city, county and nonprofit organizations. The idea is to provide wrap-around services to address the myriad barriers people with felony convictions face when they get out of prison.
“You have to have some skin in the game,” said Presnell of future clients who have already chosen to make a change in their lives, instead of being ordered by a judge to, say, undergo drug treatment. “You do your thing and we’ll give you everything we’ve got.”
But in order to integrate people back into the community, the community needs to be invited in, which is why the 1426 Project is also being envisioned as a public gathering place to discuss racial injustice, social inequities and criminal justice reform.
The project — which derives its name from the address of a four-story, 16,000-square-foot building at 1426 S. Jackson St. — is being propelled forward by Presnell and four other women, including a Seattle police officer, a retired physician, a family-law attorney and the co-owner of a local construction company.
The 1426 Project just launched a $3.5 million capital campaign to raise funds to renovate the building and cover the project’s first year of operations. Vulcan Real Estate, founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his sister Jody Allen, has already pledged its support, as has Mike McCready, Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist. Vulcan and McCready declined to disclose how much they’ve contributed to Project 1426, which aims to be fully operational by late 2021.
“I can’t wait for it to open,” said Danielle Armbruster, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) assistant secretary for re-entry, who anticipates having a DOC transition specialist work out of the 1426 building one day a week. “I think it’s going to provide a holistic environment … to help individuals heal from trauma, heal their hearts, and overall have an easier transition back into the community.”
Built in 1906, the 1426 building started out as chicken rendering facility that was eventually turned into a nightclub and speakeasy before its most recent incarnation as a karate dojo. Located just east of the eastern border of the International District, it was purchased to house the 1426 Project in June 2019 for $2.65 million by the Barton Family Foundation, established by Zillow CEO Rich Barton and his wife Sarah Barton, who in January retired from her medical practice as an OBGYN.
“It’s a lot of money to raise to get the (1426) building rebuilt, but I think the location is very central for people looking for services in King County,” Sarah Barton said. “It’ll work really well for what we’re trying to do.”
HOW IT STARTED
Amy King, who grew up in her self-described “white-girl bubble of privilege” in Edmonds, is the project’s driving force.
A former health care worker, King and her husband Brady King, a general contractor, started the Square Peg Development construction company in 2014.
At that point, Seattle was experiencing a severe labor shortage since so many workers had left the building trades during the 2008 Great Recession.
“We started hiring people with criminal backgrounds, mostly out of necessity,” Amy King recalled.
Their first six employees were all men who had served prison time and who shared stories of how they struggled to secure jobs and housing upon their release. Within three months, the Kings had hired 18 more men.
“Their stories about reentry and the criminal justice system were so heartbreaking,” Amy King said. “One hundred% of them experienced significant childhood trauma, and they all took responsibility for the decisions they had made.”
The Kings would go on to start Pallet Shelter, manufacturing personal shelters in Everett to provide a stepping stone out of homelessness, and Weld Seattle, which trains and connects formerly incarcerated, homeless and/or addicted workers with construction and general labor companies offering living-wage jobs.
In a further step to help their employees who couldn’t get housing because of their criminal records, the Kings, through Weld, struck up agreements with local developers: While developers are waiting the 12 to 18 months for building permits to be approved, they provide their properties rent-free to Weld participants. The old houses, townhouses and apartment buildings all get a fresh coat of paint and repairs before residents move in.
It’s a win-win, said King: Vacant properties aren’t occupied by squatters, and people in desperate need of housing get temporary homes as they plan their next steps.
In 2017, Weld opened its first clean-and-sober houses for men.
Around that time, King started going into state prisons to spread the word about Weld’s programs. She ended up meeting Seattle police Officer Kim Bogucki.
Bogucki, who is assigned to the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) Collaborative Policing Bureau, established The IF Project in 2008 in the women’s prison as part of her SPD community outreach work.
It began with a single question: If there was something someone could have said or done to change the path that led you here, what would it have been?
The IF Project, which would later become a nonprofit, began an intervention and prevention program to help young people stay out of the criminal justice system and launched a writers’ series, intensive workshops and health and wellness classes for women behind bars.
Bogucki, who had asked Sarah Barton to lead quarterly classes on women’s health issues for The IF Project starting in 2015, introduced Barton to King. The Seattle cop also brought into the fold family-law attorney Amanda DuBois, who founded the Civil Survival Project, a nonprofit that trains formerly incarcerated people to advocate to change laws that create barriers to successful reentry into the community.
Bogucki, King, Barton and DuBois — who share a deep interest in reforming what they see as a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately locks up Black, brown and Indigenous people for long stretches of time — started meeting and researching what other cities and states were doing to help people transition from prison or jail back into the community.
For many people leaving prison, a criminal record is “a ball and chain that affects your job, your housing, your ability to go on a field trip with your child at school,” said Bogucki. “It’s like a wet wool blanket you’re never free from.”
DuBois agrees. She quoted a Civil Survival workshop participant who said, “The judge sentenced me to three years in prison, not a lifetime of homelessness and unemployment.”
The women also wanted to find ways to empower people who have been to prison and experienced homelessness and addiction to lead the 1426 Project.
FINDING THE MISSING PIECE
Carolyn Presnell’s childhood was marred by domestic violence, alcoholism and middle-of-the-night moves that saw her and her siblings shuffled between housing projects in Seattle’s Central District and Columbia City — and in and out of state care.
“Mistrust of the police was really ingrained in me because of all the domestic violence in the house,” she said.
After at least one stint in juvenile detention, Presnell went to jail for the first time when she was 18. By then, she was addicted to alcohol and heroin. Over the next several years, she was booked again and again: “I was in jail always for a day or two, just long enough to get some sleep and a sandwich and head out reinvigorated.”
At 25, she got sober, but she relapsed seven years later. At 35, she went to prison for the first time on a residential burglary charge for stealing a bicycle out of a woman’s garage in Ballard.
“Looking out the window and seeing the guard shack and barbed wire, I was like, ‘OK, honey, you’ve gone and done it now,’” Presnell said.
After being released, she didn’t qualify for housing. She again returned to drinking and using drugs, which landed her in the intensive-care unit more times than she can count.
By the time she returned to prison in October 2015, she was happy to be there: “I couldn’t stop (drinking) and it was safe. They would be able to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself,” said Presnell.
After serving her sentence, Presnell received a three-month housing voucher from DOC.
“I wasn’t stressing out about being housed. It’s huge,” she said, contrasting the experience with her first release from prison. “I had time and internal peace because I could take the time to quiet my heart and have conversations with the Creator.”
Presnell wound up at Kate’s House, a sober-living house where she reconnected with women who had been in prison at the same she was. One of them told her about Weld, which by that time in 2018, was opening its second house for previously incarcerated women. (Weld currently operates 18 houses, four of them for women, in neighborhoods across Seattle.)
Presnell came on as a house manager that August before becoming the women’s housing coordinator two months later.
“I’m no longer the person sucking all the light out of the room,” she said. “I went from belonging nowhere to belonging everywhere.”
Forthright and friendly, Presnell is the perfect person to lead the 1426 Project, said Bogucki, the Seattle cop.
“There’s not a disingenuous cell in that woman’s body,” Bogucki said of Presnell, who will turn 50 next week. “Being able to show up authentically, people who’ve been through trauma can smell that.”
The renovation plans for the 1426 building involve lots of exposed brick, beams and duct work. The facility will be fully accessible to people with disabilities, said King.
“We’re going for a fun, funky industrial vibe,” she said, envisioning walls decorated with graffiti art.
The top floor will include office space for Weld, The IF Project, the Civil Survival Project and other community organizations working with formerly incarcerated people and on social-justice issues.
The floor below that will be dedicated to treatment rooms for people seeking mental health and substance abuse help, and will be overseen by clinical social workers. There will also be two large classrooms for adult education classes, on everything from financial literacy and an introduction to the construction trades to parenting, conflict management and nutrition.
A café that will be open to the public is planned for the main floor, along with a large community event space.
The basement will be transformed into a recording studio, with other spaces dedicated to offering trauma-informed yoga, meditation and arts programs.
“If you’re someone coming here to do really tough mental-health work or the tough stuff surrounding trauma, you need a way to work that out of your body,” said King.
Presnell said she wants to create a space that heals and breaks down silos.
“It’s hard to feel a part of a community unless you have a hand in (creating) it,” she said.
©2020 The Seattle Times