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Originally published June 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 18, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Crowded prisons, ex-inmates finding hope in job programs

As prison overcrowding forces the state to examine ways of releasing inmates early, re-entry programs are becoming increasingly important to prevent recidivism.

Seattle Times staff reporter

At the swanky Skyline Tower in Bellevue, Susan Smith pores over cookbooks for new recipes and pitches in with the prep work at Mezza Café.

Nine years ago, Smith wasn't assembling the fixings for a croissant -- she was cooking up meth.

A drug bust, prison and post-release help from a re-entry program gave Smith a new life and turned her from tax burden into taxpayer.

As prison overcrowding forces the state to examine ways of releasing inmates early, re-entry programs like the one that helped Smith are becoming increasingly important to prevent recidivism, say officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC). And Smith -- now manager of one cafe and about to take on expanded duties as manager of a second cafe at a new Lexus dealership -- exemplifies exactly what officials hope for.

After years in prison, Smith and her husband parlayed their post-incarceration training in food services into jobs. The couple were not only able to get back on their feet, but eventually were able to purchase a home. Smith now finds herself counseling other former inmates as they struggle to readapt to the world outside prison walls.

"I love it when they tell me, 'When I first got out I didn't think I'd be where I am if it weren't for you,' " Smith says.

Typically, when inmates are released, they are returned to their home community with no money, no job and often no more skills than when they were incarcerated. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy -- a nonpartisan research institute -- some 8,500 offenders are released annually, joining the 25,900 men and women already on parole.

Research shows that within 13 years, 54 percent of them will return to prison for new crimes.

That Smith did her time and transformed her life shows that re-entry programs work, says her boss, Rick Pinney, vice president of food services for the nonprofit Pioneer Human Services, which employs Smith. "Susan was wired for success but made a dumb left turn" when she began using drugs, he says.

A Ford Foundation study of Pioneer showed that 6.4 percent of the inmates returned to prison after two years, compared with 22 percent of those who did not go through any work-release or employment programs.

Boost from lawmakers

In its last session, the state Legislature allocated $28.3 million to expand adult offender re-entry programs, specifically work release. The DOC recently announced it planned to double its work-release capacity in the next 10 years to reduce prison overcrowding.

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"Without re-entry [programs] to reduce recidivism, Washington faces a shortfall of 4,077 beds by 2017," DOC spokesman Jeff Weathersby says. "The state would have to build at least two new prisons by 2020 at the cost of about $250 million each. The new prisons would increase annual operating costs by some $45 million per year."

Pioneer, which provides services for federal and state prison inmates, gave Smith on-the-job training and housing after she was released from prison, at a time when no one else would hire or house her.

The counseling, job training and subsidized housing Smith and her husband, Kevin Smith, now both 48, received made success possible, she says.

Says Pinney: "She's the kind of person we want to promote."

Childhood on the edge

Smith grew up in a log cabin outside the Pierce County town of Buckley, one of eight children in a family that lived simply, without plumbing or electricity.

It was living on the edge, but not only because they used an outhouse and had no television. Growing up, Smith never knew when her father would spring into a torrent of blows against his wife and children.

"You never feel normal growing up," she says.

At a young age, she left home and married the first man who seemed to be promising love and security.

A foray into the 1970s drug culture followed. So did four pregnancies. She lost a son to sudden infant death syndrome in 1980. She divorced twice, lost her mother in 1992 to an injury related to her father's beatings, and became increasingly depressed and involved with drugs.

She was working as a bartender and living in a comfortable home in Sumner when she met Kevin and later married him. They had drug use in common. While in the beginning Smith's drug use was experimental and occasional, once she tried highly addictive meth, she was hooked.

Smith canned vegetables, baked bread and helped her daughters with homework, believing herself to be "quite the little homemaker," keeping her drug use secret.

But Detective Wes Tucker of the Sumner Police Department knew. Tucker was the police officer who responded to Smith's home the day her baby died. He had seen families like Smith's -- sometimes three generations of them living in a motel -- after meth took control of their lives.

Over the years, when he happened to see Smith in Sumner, he noticed how her life was increasingly out of control, and became concerned. Once, he confronted her about drug use.

"Susan, what are you doing?" he asked.

Now retired from his 27-year career, Tucker recalls Smith was "a nice person who made some bad choices. I remember her talking about how much her home meant to her. ... There were kids in the home, too, and they were the world to her."

Like Tucker did with many others he investigated for drug use, he sat down with Smith and tried to get her to consider changing.

Smith believed she and her husband would move away from Sumner to a farm in Eatonville, raising a $57,000 down payment by manufacturing meth, which also would supply their own use.

"It was such a delusion," she now says. "I really believed it would work."

The Smiths set up an operation in Maple Valley and kept the drug manufacturing secret from the children.

Plan ends at gunpoint

One morning in 1998, Susan Smith was on the phone with a real-estate agent when federal agents swarmed into the house. The next thing she knew she was face down on the floor, a gun pointed at her head. She heard her children scream in fright as they were roused from bed by police.

"It was the most horrible day of my life and also the best day of my life," she says.

Tucker was there and just shook his head. "Susan, I tried to tell you," she recalls him saying.

Convicted of conspiracy to manufacture a controlled substance, Smith was released after spending almost four years of a five-year sentence in a federal prison in California. Kevin had been released earlier and was waiting for her. He had found a job in one of the restaurants where Pioneer provided food service.

One day in 2002, he told Pinney, the Pioneer vice president, that his wife was on federal work release in Los Angeles and had until the end of the day to find a job or be returned to prison. Pinney agreed to hire her.

She had lost the house she once owned in Sumner and found no one would rent to them because of their convictions.

At first they lived with Kevin's relatives, and she started the job Pinney offered through the re-entry program -- being the "mop girl" at the Mezza Café in the Starbucks corporate headquarters. It required a three-hour bus ride one way every day for minimum wage.

Eventually, she and Kevin moved into a low-cost apartment owned by the re-entry program and became its managers so they could save money. They had a dream: buying a house in two years.

Two years later, they signed a mortgage for a four-bedroom, ranch-style fixer-upper in Federal Way. Smith has been reunited with her children, and today she manages the Mezza in Bellevue. Kevin is the food director of all Mezza cafes, which are staffed by former inmates.

"It's all about baby steps," Kevin says. "So many think all there is to it is just jumping into the mainstream of life. I think we've come a long way."

Susan Smith takes a break in a corner booth at the cafe and talks about her desire to help her young employees -- also former inmates -- by sharing the wisdom she has gained from her mistakes.

"Sometimes I just want to shake them."

One of them, Cortney Koser, brings her a tissue because a tear has left a smudge of mascara. Koser gives Smith a hug.

"She's our boss, but she understands. She goes out of her way for us," says Koser, 24.

Says Smith, "I'm glad I have whatever years I have left to be drug free and happy."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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