Walking the hard road to reformation

Released from jail four months ago, 28-year-old Jason Clark started his long return to the real world by working to change himself and his community in Seattle's Central District. But let's start at the beginning, in Detroit.

Sent by his mom to live with his grandparents as a child at age 4, dropped out of school in the eighth-grade. Despite this, he says his grandparents endowed him with a good work ethic.

Clark eventually left his Detroit home and moved in with his dad, who lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., at 13. That worked out for a while - the two even got stoned together - but his father became physically abusive, and Jason says he was having none of it.

So he moved back to Detroit where, he says, he was picked up for possession with the intent to deliver and assault with the intent to murder. His grandparents bailed him out and he fled to Billings, Mont., where he lived for three years.

In the Big Sky State he was arrested for drug possession and was extradited back to Detroit to serve 10 months of an 18-month sentence. After being released in 2002, he came to Seattle where he received a domestic violence charge. After violating a no-contact order with his ex-girlfriend, he was sentenced to 13 months in prison.

These last marks on his criminal record were, he says, both a blessing and a curse. The curse being the upcoming prison time, the blessing being the fact that he wasn't picked up for a more serious offense, like the crack cocaine sales he was involved with at the time.

Sea change

The first three months spent locked away were a frustrating experience for Clark, stewing in his own bad choices.

"It destroyed everything I was trying to hold onto: my family, my possessions-all of it was gone," Clark said of his prison time.

After five months he was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in the southern end of Puget Sound, where his mind started to wander. He became interested in books and began studying with fellow prisoner Derrick Fields, who was reading the socially conscious works of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Clark was heavily influenced by Abu-Jamal's books "Live on Death Row" and "Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience." He started looking at his fellow inmates differently and a divide grew.

"I thought, man, I don't want to become this, and I realized, I am this," says Clark.

During his time at McNeil, he received no pictures or letters from his young son. The lack of contact solidified his resolution to change, a realization that life was bigger than his own.

"It's bigger than just Jason-he's not right, he's not happy-that's one of the things that I learned this last time: to love myself," he says.

Around this time Clark was introduced to Abu-Jamal he came into contact with JusticeWorks! (JW), a self-described "grassroots criminal justice reform organization" based in the Central Area and Capital Hill. For Jason, the organization was a tool of self-empowerment.

He started a correspondence course through which he would get reading assignments and send in his writings. This helped him conclude that his subconscious patterns of behavior to that point were completely wrong. Violence as a solution, the devaluation of women, and dealing drugs as a way of life were concepts he had embraced his entire life. Concepts he now realized were elementally wrong.

While imprisoned, Clark's work with JW representatives fostered his appreciation of having someone invest time in his life.

In the moment

After being released last November, Clark found that getting the basic necessities became challenges. It's a situation JW asserts is common with the majority of previously incarcerated people. In the midst of these struggles, Clark created four short-term goals for himself: obtain visitation rights with his 5-year-old son, Deone; secure a place to live; find a job; and get into school.

Anticipating this intense transition period, Clark connected with Tim Bacani, founder of JW, while incarcerated. Through Bacani, Clark was able to obtain a release address - a place where he could spend his first days back in society at large - at the JW transitional house near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and Union Street. Within the first week of being, Bacani introduced Clark to his new mentor, Charles Gooding of the outreach program Clean Dreams.

Gooding noted that it is extremely difficult for those with criminal records to pass background checks for even the most mundane jobs. However, Clean Dreams specializes in working with previously imprisoned individuals to help them prevent a relapse into criminal behavior while simultaneously helping them find proverbial footing.

Clark describes Gooding as a guide who has not only helped keep a roof over his head, but also, more importantly, helped him to restore confidence in himself.

Bacani, also a former inmate, offered Clark a position as an organizer with JW. He currently works for JW's No New Prisons Campaign.

Unexpected outcome

Perhaps not a conscientious goal that Clark laid out for himself, but one that he has definitely reached, is that of establishing himself as a positive force in the community.

"People don't think about how to give back, they think about how to get out," he says of those at the lowest socio-economic level.

After meeting Larry Evans, who runs his own program helping at risk high school students, Clark was recently recruited to speak at Franklin High School.

"Basically I just show up and let them know that someone cares," says Clark.

He explains that adolescents, especially those who are dropping out of the system, have no respect for authority. Therefore, you have to get on their level in order to relate to them and subsequently reach them. Clark notes that a little bit of prevention in the African American youth community would eliminate all need for intervention.

Every week Clark spends an hour looking into faces that he hopes can learn from his mistakes: trying to make a difference in their lives in a way no one did for him and analyzing the past as a way to better his future.

"I'm ready. It's like everyday-I'm ready," says Clark.

Elizabeth Mortenson may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.[[In-content Ad]]