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Doing time in Port Orchard

Part one in a two-part series. Today’s story looks at the problems a typical inmate faces and how Peninsula Work Release deals with those issues as offenders develop the skills needed to become productive members of society.

A kid who looks to be in his late teens huddles over the receiver of a pay phone, possibly talking to his girlfriend or even his mom. An older man sporting a basketball jersey saunters out for a smoke, joining others sprawled in lawn chairs in the rarely seen sunshine. The woman at the front desk calls someone over, waving a pink memo note to let him know he has a phone message. Two men in their late 20s laugh over a video game in the rec room, fiddling with the TV and game controllers at the same time.

It looks a lot like the average floor in a college dorm, right down to the miniature cafeteria and the sturdy wood-grain laminate furniture in the rooms.

Only a sign, posted at the front desk immediately in front of the main entrance, gives a clue to the real purpose of the facility:

“Offenders, do not pass this point without specific staff instruction. You will be infracted.”

Since it first opened in the South Kitsap Industrial Park in Port Orchard in 1995, Peninsula Work Release has been working to re-integrate convicts in the community prior to their release. The building has no bars, no guards and no locks — except, as community corrections supervisor Frank Ohly pointed out, for those on the exterior doors.

“And that’s for people coming in,” he said.

Nearly every resident at Peninsula is there because he or she earned the right while in prison. The 60-bed facility, Ohly emphasized, does not take troublemakers or discipline problems.

Only those who have shown a willingness to work and a desire to change are accepted into the program, which typically runs for the last six months of a prisoner’s sentence. Anyone causing problems or shirking their responsibilities is shipped right back to prison.

“This is a luxury to be here,” Ohly said. “This is a privilege to be here.”

Everyone who comes to Peninsula has to find a job within 10 days, although extensions are granted for exceptional cases. The jobs are, for the most part, low-skill and minimum wage. Dishwashing is a popular occupation, as is fast food and telemarketing.

Most offenders in the facility, Ohly said, don’t have the skills to do anything else.

“A lot of these guys, this is the first time they’ve had to go out and look for a job,” Ohly said. “Sometimes it takes a while.”

Director Cindy Robinson said all new residents have to take a literacy test to assess basic reading and writing skills. Robinson said lack of education was one of the two most common obstacles residents have to deal with.

Drug and alcohol problems is the other.

Robinson said the average skill level of residents hovers around eighth grade, although many who walk through the door are functionally illiterate.

Program supervisor Melinda Murphy said some offenders lack even the most basic skills needed to function in society.

“They don’t know how to look a name up in the phone book, they don’t know how to get a driver’s license, so they just don’t,” she said.

This is where Peninsula’s offender programs come in.

Facility residents are required to take at least one life improvement class, although many offenders take several. Literacy classes are offered, along with classes which teach life skills, self-awareness and behavior modification, parenting, relationship maintenance and overcoming chemical dependency. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous group meetings are also available.

Offenders’ spouses and children are often encouraged to participate in these programs, particularly those aimed toward re-establishing positive family dynamics.

“Usually, the offender will take the assistance,” Robinson said.

Anthony Moore, 29, represents a typical resident by Robinson’s measure.

Moore has little formal education — he got his GED while in prison — and has a serious criminal history. His latest charge, unlawful possession of a firearm, got him sent to prison for 31 months thanks to his elevated offender score.

Moore said he spent 15 months in jail between 1994 and 1995 for a first-degree burglary conviction. Because he didn’t qualify for work release at that time, his sentence ended with the warden at McNeil Island simply opening the gate and letting him out with no prospects and no safety net. Soon afterward, he was back to his old habits, which eventually led to his most recent conviction.

“This time, I’m hoping to stay on my feet,” Moore said.

Moore said he likes his job as a dishwasher at Tweten’s Dock in Port Orchard. He said this is one of the first jobs he’s ever been able to hold down and wants to keep it for a while yet.

“All the past jobs I had I screwed up because I was really into dope,” Moore admitted. “I was a really hard worker, but I’d get a paycheck and go buy dope and I wouldn’t go back to work. That’s not the kind of job references you want to give out.”

Moore said has hopes of one day pursuing a degree in psychology. He said he took a college psychology class while at McNeil Island and enjoyed it, even though it was challenging.

However, not every resident has the same obstacles to overcome or the same goals for when they leave the facility. Roommates Shirley Sapp-Sexton, 35, and Lena Naputi, 34, both dream about rebuilding their families after they leave.

Sapp-Sexton, who still owns a house in Poulsbo, said the whole prison experience came as a horrible shock. Last year, both she and her husband were sent to prison for narcotics delivery. Sapp-Sexton was sentenced to 24 months under a drug sentencing alternative and sent to the women’s correctional institution at Purdy.

“For me, Purdy was a horrible experience,” she said. “I’d never even been to county jail before. I’d never been in a fight in my life and that was going on all the time.”

She said she was sent to solitary confinement — “the hole” — for 10 days for violating a no-talking rule. Because Sapp-Sexton was allowed only a few pieces of paper, a Bible and a piece of pencil while in solitary, she had plenty of time to think.

Sapp-Sexton said she decided there was no way she was ever getting sent to prison again and started taking steps to ensure she never went back. She started taking classes to get her GED and received her diploma the day before she left Pine Lodge — a drug treatment facility in Spokane and her second stop on the road to release.

“It took prison for me to take those steps,” Sapp-Sexton said. “I didn’t think I was smart enough to get my GED.”

With only six weeks left in her time at Peninsula, Sapp-Sexton said she’s starting to make plans for her return home. She said her 19-year-old son has been looking after the house but, with a mother’s insight, expects to still find it a bit of a mess when she gets back.

Sapp-Sexton said her and her husband’s arrests were very hard on the boy, with whom she has a very close relationship. She said she looks forward to being a mom again, and doing mom stuff.

“I’m looking forward to going home and gardening and cooking and cleaning,” she said. “They did their job — I’m not coming back.”

Naputi, sentenced to 20 months for intimidating a witness, also wants to go home to her three children, currently staying with their grandmother in Bremerton. However, she admits her road home may be a little rockier than Sapp-Sexton’s.

Wrapped up in drug addiction and other problems, Naputi said she has to rebuild a lot of bridges with all members of her family.

“I’ve been hard-core and rough-to-the-road,” she said. “It’s been seven years since I actually had Christmas with my kids.”

Both she and Sapp-Sexton work at a telemarketing firm in Bremerton and Naputi hopes to use that job to build a viable career for herself. Although she never finished her GED while in prison, she said she has a natural affinity for sales and marketing and hopes to move into that field after she gets out.

Naputi said she has been grateful for her time at Peninsula and appreciates what the staff has done to help her reconnect with her family. She said staff not only took her out to buy presents for her kids, they also chipped in a gift or two themselves.

“I want to be the best mom I can,” Naputi said. “I’m anxious to take back that role if I’m given the chance because I’ve done a lot of damage with them and with my family.”

Sapp-Sexton is still chagrined her husband couldn’t come to Peninsula while she was still there — the facility has rules about housing couples together — but said administrators have told her he can transfer there from Tacoma as soon as she leaves.

Both women call each other their strongest source of support as they try to put their families and their lives back together again.

“We never thought we’d make it, but we’re hanging strong,” Naputi said. “I am so blessed to have a roommate like this.”

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