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Originally published Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 4:54 PM

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Ari Kohn puts a stopper in the revolving prison door

Ari Kohn’s nonprofit Post-Prison Education Program has helped many former prisoners turn their lives around.

Times editorial columnist

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Washington state prisons released 7,655 inmates last year. As a rule, a little less than half will end up back behind bars within three years.

The revolving door has been the open secret of the correctional industry for decades. It is baked into official state forecasts, a status quo that wastes taxpayer money, ensures crime victims and calcifies racial and economic inequity.

And yet the door keeps going around and around.

Enter Ari Kohn and his nonprofit, Post-Prison Education Program, the circuit-breaker on the closed loop of recidivism. PPEP succeeds partly because of Kohn, a 66-year-old former federal inmate with flowing white hair, the vocabulary of a sailor and a hard-earned reputation as patron saint of ex-cons.

PPEP also succeeds because so few other groups try to do what it does. It picks handfuls of motivated, just-released ex-prisoners and smothers them with help, scrutiny and tough love.

Simple rules: They must go to school, live on a shoestring budget and — this is big — honestly try to work on the personal junk that got them into prison. In exchange, Kohn will cover tuition, food, rent, phones, lawyers, whatever it takes.

“It’s so simply solved,” Kohn said last week, in his office above Third Avenue. “If you meet the legitimate, frugal needs of former prisoners at the time they arise, you won’t have recidivism any more.”

The first three months are key; research shows that’s when most ex-cons fall. “If you get them to the first day of the second year, you’ve flipped the odds completely,” Kohn said.

“That’s why we’re so successful. We blanket former prisoners. The first three months they come out of prison, we’re like nagging Jewish grandmothers.”

It’s true: instead of a 50-50ish chance of returning to prison, Kohn’s program boasts a 98 percent success rate. That is, only two out of 100 go back to prison.

Breaking the recidivism loop has been a liberal cause for more than a decade. Washington and the U.S. Congress passed prison re-entry laws in 2007, but both withered on the vine, partly because of the Great Recession, but mostly because of what Kohn calls “political cowardice.”

Example No. 1: Washington bans state funding for college in prison, despite undeniable research showing that it is wildly successful at reducing recidivism.

Kohn disagrees with me, but I’m seeing renewed enthusiasm, even hard-bitten optimism, for re-entry. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who released an important call to action on re-entry last year, calls it “the great untapped area for criminal-justice reform.” Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell in July passed a local ordinance limiting employers’ ability to ask about felony records on job applications.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder praised re-entry and prevention programs as he announced a softening of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes. “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” Holder said.

Ask Shelly Klier, one of Kohn’s star graduates. She had 13 or 14 felony drug and gun convictions — she lost track — before hearing Kohn speak at her prison. She wrote PPEP’s required 1,000-word personal essay about her chaotic childhood with bikers, dope cooks and a heroin-addicted mother.

Kohn, by Klier’s estimates, invested about $20,000 since her release in 2010. She regained custody of her children, as well as her younger brother, got married, stayed clean and landed a union job at Vigor Industrial as a rare female welder. She recently gave her first donation, $50, to PPEP. “I don’t ever want my kids to have my memories,” said Klier, 32.

Kohn, who was convicted of wire fraud in 1996, paid for this with personal and family money until that went dry. More recently, Google has helped: Employees raised $136,000 at a single lunch in December, a huge chunk of PPEP’s $500,000 annual budget.

But it remains precarious. Helping prisoners is not an easy sell for funders. And Kohn is, well, prickly. “I’m the only person you’ve ever met who told the Gates Foundation to kiss his ass!” he said, smiling.

After years of operating on a shoestring, Kohn got a huge surprise last week. As part of a class-action lawsuit settlement involving AT&T’s exorbitant prison telephone rates, a King County judge last Friday doled out nearly $22 million to local nonprofits and legal aid groups.

The preliminary ruling: Kohn gets $2.5 million. “I’m simply blown away,” he said in an email. “For the first time ever in our entire history we are in a position to truly, truly make a meaningful difference.”

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com

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