I got to the Washington Correction Center For Women in Gig Harbor around dusk, and saw dozens of women dressed in gray sweat pants and T-shirts hanging out in the yard, surrounded by chain link fence and barbed wire. I was taken to a room to interview inmates who participate in The If Project, started by Seattle Police Detective Kim Bogucki. A project that started with a single question:
If there was something somebody could have said or done to change the path that led you here, what would it have been?
Five years ago, Kim casually asked that question to a group of moms at the prison.
"One of the inmates, Renata Abramson, on her own was like, 'Wow, that's an interesting question' and started asking it of the other women inside the prison," Kim said. "When I came back, she handed me a stack of papers and the women had written their answers down. Thus, it was kind of organically birthed."
Some of the 240 answers sounded like Andrea's, who is serving a 36-year sentence.
"If someone would have told me that I was special, if someone told me that I was valid, that I was loved, that I was inspirational, that I was needed, I believe that that would have made a difference," said Andrea.
The question really changed everything for Renata, a mother of four serving an eight year sentence for possession and delivery of meth and firearms. She had never really thought about why she had been committing crimes since she was a little girl.
"In my mind it opened another road. It was like, okay, here was my road and here was this road that Kim was offering," Renata started to cry. "It made me think that things could have been different if I would have had somebody who cared enough to just ask that question."
The question inspired Kim to set up intense, eight hour writing workshops in the prison. The women write out their stories, they talk and peel away the layers of their lives. They remember sexual abuse and neglect and the things that made them feel helpless and hopeless that led them to drugs and crime.
Renata was only 12-years-old when she went to jail for the first time for grand theft auto, hit and run, and burglary. She said her parents paid very little attention to their kids and when Renata was 11, she was kidnapped and taken from San Jose, California to Los Angeles. She was missing for ten days.
"Once I was in that car and traveling to LA, I knew that it was going to be me that was going to have to get me free. So I bit the guy's ear and blood went all over and he dropped me like a sack of hot potatoes," said Renata. "All I remember is skin between my teeth and it felt horrible. But he dropped me and I got away."
All alone and covered in blood, 11-year-old Renata hitchhiked back to San Jose and when she got home, her parents hadn't even noticed she'd been gone. Renata started to cry when she told me that was the worst part of the entire abduction experience. Her parents hadn't called police. They didn't even care that she was missing.
Detective Kim was the first person Renata ever told about her kidnapping. It's a huge deal, considering Renata was raised to venomously hate the police.
"It's incredible. I truly can call her a friend and she's a cop. I raised my kids to hate the police and they like her too now, so that's a big step."
Renata said showing emotion and vulnerability in prison can make you a target. But the If Project birthed an unheard of confidentiality amongst the women.
"I was never very emotional. Even with my kids I'd be like, 'Buck up and let's get going.' Here, these women are pouring their hearts out, and wanting me to hear it, and I wasn't even crying. So I just prayed. I was like, 'God help me, have compassion for the women in here.' From then on it just changed. Even some of the hardest or the meanest girls in here, they all have a story and a lot of us are just broken women."
Renata gets out next year and for the first time, she has no interest in drugs. She's only interested in a new life, raising her 11-year-old daughter.
There's another half to the If Project, the part that uses these women's stories to help kids stay on the right path. The second part of this three part series is coming up Wednesday on The Ron and Don Show.
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