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Originally published October 10, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified October 10, 2011 at 9:10 PM

Nicole Brodeur

Story of our prisons is a crime

Dolphy Jordan had attended 15 schools by the ninth grade. Parents split. Foster homes. And then, at 16, he stabbed a friend's mother to death.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Dolphy Jordan had attended 15 schools by the ninth grade. Parents split. Foster homes. And then, at 16, he stabbed a friend's mother to death.

"It was an abusive home, similar to mine," he told me. "We went to school together and made some stupid, elaborate plan ... and I don't think we thought any further than that."

Jordan spent 21 years in jail. Now 39, he is planning his future and his chances beyond bars.

They look good. Jordan is a client at the Post-Prison Education Program (PPEP), a nonprofit that helps former convicts build new and better lives through what managing director Ari Kohn calls "wraparound" services like education support, computer training and counseling.

Jordan has done so well in the program that he has been asked to be part of a Town Hall panel Thursday called "Inequality in the Age of Mass Incarceration," which will follow a keynote by Bruce Western, a Harvard professor who is the author of "Punishment and Inequality in America."

(The panel includes Metropolitan King County Council Chair Larry Gossett and Doug Merlino, author of the nonfiction book, "The Hustle," which speaks to the dynamics of race and class through the story of a Seattle basketball program.)

Western's book is required reading for anyone who wonders why our country's prisons are so overcrowded. Simply put, the odds stack up quickly against people who grew up poor, like Jordan, who is white.

And if you're black, the odds are even worse.

Western's book outlines how inner-city deindustrialization led to unemployment. That led to crimes (mostly drug-related) for which mass numbers of people were getting put behind bars. That created not only an inequality between blacks and whites, but drove a wedge into the black community: Those who have been educated, and those who have not.

A few stats from Western's book: African Americans are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Of those in prison or jail in 1996, 36 percent were black high-school dropouts ages 25 to 65. "You look at the statistics, and there is no question that there is this racial disparity," Kohn said.

"Unless you're a straight-up racist who would like knowing that kind of reality, people should look at that and go crazy."

People need to understand the cause-and-effect of mass imprisonment, if we are ever going to fix the problem. And they need to hear the stories behind the crimes — the child abuse, the drugs.

"How can some of these kids do anything but end up in prison?" Kohn asked.

Once in prison, Jordan received little training beyond his GED. He found a passion for reading, diving into books by Dickens, Clancy and Clavell as he moved from prison to prison. Once out, he came to Seattle and connected with the PPEP, where he works as the volunteer coordinator, and is attending South Seattle Community College with an eye on studying sociology at the University of Washington.

It's intimidating to sit on a panel, he said, but he's looking forward to speaking about his experiences and, hopefully, changing minds.

"I'm a person, just like you," he told me. "It's hard. When someone doesn't know I was in prison, they treat me like a normal person. Then, when they find out, there's a shift. They're more guarded. They tense up, take a step back."

Finding support and acceptance is a job all its own.

"But it's a challenge I kind of enjoy," he said. "I'm happy to have an opportunity to prove people wrong."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. Here's to second chances.

About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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