“If there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?”
Seattle police officer Kim Bogucki asked this to a group of mothers serving time at the Washington Corrections Center in 2008. It was a simple, yet critical, question.
Renata Abramson, an inmate serving a nine-year sentence, was struck. Over the next few days, she answered the question in writing and invited her fellow inmates to do the same. When Kim walked into the prison a month later, Renata handed her a stack of 25 essays. The IF Project was born.
The IF Project is a collaboration of law enforcement, currently and previously incarcerated adults, and community partners. Their work focuses on intervention, prevention, and reduction in incarceration and recidivism.
The project provides programs for youth, training for adults who work with youth, a reentry and mentoring program for incarcerated women, and workshops and training for incarcerated men and women. Kim also created a writing workshop for the women, who journal about the “if’s” in their lives.
The IF Project is also now the subject of an award-winning, feature-length documentary that will be shown this fall at North Seattle College. The film focuses on how women are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985.
The screening is a part of the Alpha Epsilon Omega Chapter’s Honors in Action Project, which focuses on the theme “Rights and Responsibilities.”
“It’s given understanding to a very important issue,” chapter advisor Michaelann Allen said. “A lot of people don’t realize what’s going on.”
The chapter has focused its Honors in Action Project on homelessness for the last few years, since one of its former officers was temporarily homeless. The Seattle Times reported in 2016 that more than 10,500 people were sleeping outside, in homeless shelters, or in transitional housing.
Housing insecurity among recently released inmates is often a barrier to successful reentry into society and can lead to recidivism. For Michaelann, both the film and the project seemed like a perfect fit in Alpha Epsilon Omega’s honors project.
“Phi Theta Kappa has such an underlying support for everyone,” she said. “Anything that can give people an opportunity for growth and improvement, that’s what PTK does.”
Phi Theta Kappa recently announced that it would extend membership to all eligible students, including those currently incarcerated or serving probation. President and CEO Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner said the move speaks to the core of both Phi Theta Kappa and the community colleges it serves.
“It’s our desire — our mission — to be part of the solution to a set of very complex social problems,” she said. “It’s our way of ‘unchecking the box’ — saying to students that their mistakes shouldn’t follow them forever.”
A meta-analysis by the Rand Corp. found those who actively participate in higher education within prisons have a recidivism rate of just 16 percent. That number further drops for those who earn degrees.
Phi Theta Kappa members receive job skills training and can develop leadership skills through research and service projects that result in increased workforce readiness. And overall, research has shown that PTK members are three times as likely to complete a college degree or certificate than their peers.
“It keeps people on the right path when you’re recognized for what you’re doing right,” Michaelann said.
In addition to screening the film on campus this fall, the Alpha Epsilon Omega Chapter will host a panel discussion on the film. It will be one of several panels focused on homelessness and transitional housing hosted later in the year.
More than 3,000 inmates have participated in The IF Project. If you’re interested in screening the film on your campus, contact Katie Weeks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315.750.6341. Once you purchase the license to the movie, your college can keep the movie in its library.