South Seattle Community College helps ex-convicts find "a way out"

From her prison cell, Claudia Sorum formulated her plan — permanently kick her meth habit, reconnect with her three young children and return to college.

It's been two years and Sorum is sharing a Kent apartment with her estranged husband and their children. She is maintaining a 3.8 grade-point average at South Seattle Community College (SSCC) and is five credits shy of getting her associate's degree.

The Walla Walla native hopes to attend Whitman College to get her bachelor's degree, something she says would have been impossible without a program the South Seattle college offers ex-cons.

In the two years Life-Skills-to-Work has been offered for free to recently released convicts from state prisons and county jails, about 200 people have taken the 10-week course. Students enrolled in this nonacademic class are taught everything from managing debt to gaining self-esteem to setting goals.

If successful in Life Skills, former convicts are given the opportunity to seek an associate's degree for free, or get free vocational training from the college. A federal education grant supports the program.

"The whole idea is you need to realize there is a way out, a way of changing your thinking and changing your environment," instructor Kathlene Wong said about the program.

Wong formally refers to students as Mr. and Ms., calmly handles them interrupting with stories about their families, and gently shakes them when they fall asleep. She teaches "possibility thinking" — that there are options in their lives, and prison doesn't have to be one of them.

"We can all get a job — the point here is to take a look at a career," Wong said during one recent class at the state Department of Corrections' (DOC) Seattle Community Justice Center in Sodo, where SSCC offers many of its Life Skills programs.

Kathy Bouta, a DOC field administrator in King County, said the program is unlike any other in the state.

"Besides supervision and operating institutions, one of our [DOC's] key targets is to provide intervention programs that will make differences in peoples' lives," Bouta said. "Our goal is to reduce the likelihood to re-offend."

Education behind bars

Last year, about 7,400 inmates in state prisons took academic courses while incarcerated, according to DOC officials. This year alone, the state expects to spend about $14.5 million on inmate educational programs.

Three years ago, SSCC officials approached DOC with the idea of starting the program. Offering such a class made sense to the school — nearly 65 percent of local prison and jail releasees end up in South Seattle, said Keith Marler, director of work-force development at the school.

"It seemed a very natural population for us to work with," said Joseph Garcia, an instructor in the program.

To participate in Life Skills, students must have a criminal record, be referred to the program by county or state corrections officials, and be involved in some sort of drug, alcohol or anger-management treatment program. Students also have to regularly be checking in with community-corrections officers.

While Sorum and a handful of other students have gone on after Life Skills to take regular academic courses at SSCC's main campus, others have instead taken courses at the college's Duwamish Apprenticeship and Education Center. Those classes lead to apprenticeships in building trades, Garcia said.

"It's been very successful," Garcia said about Life Skills. "We have seen people just transformed."

In his sixth week in Wong's class, Thomas Glover said he now has "hope, so I don't have to go out and get involved in illegal activities."

Glover, who recently served about three years in prison, wants to take additional courses at SSCC in culinary arts or business.

"At my age, I don't have a whole lot of time to screw around in life," said Glover, 47, of Seattle. "Being close to 50, I'm not looking forward to doing any more time."

Life turn-around

Since starting academic courses at the main SSCC campus last fall, Sorum has completed all but five credits of math necessary to get her associate's degree. The computing-technology student said the college pays for her tuition and books and even buys her a bus pass.

She spends nearly her entire day on campus. When she gets home, she studies and spends time with three of her children, ages 12, 9 and 7.

After Sorum separated from her husband, she was using and selling methamphetamine in Kitsap County and living with an abusive boyfriend. For two years, she was homeless and didn't see her children; they lived with their father. She was arrested in a Port Orchard meth house before she wound up at Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor.

"I pretty much thought I would die where I was in the drug world," said Sorum, 44, who served nearly two years on seven counts of possession of stolen property and four counts of forgery.

After her release in December 2002, Sorum moved into an apartment near her estranged husband and children; eight months later, she moved in with them.

"This school is very diverse and works hard to accommodate all cultures, including the ex-offender culture," said Sorum, who hopes someday to be a writer or a graphic artist. "I have a lot more confidence in myself because of the program. My perception of the truth has changed immensely."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or