Whatcom group strives to help prisoners rebuild their lives

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 11, 2014 

Irene Morgan

Irene Morgan, who founded the Restorative Community Coalition, a local group that helps prisoners get back on their feet, Friday, Dec. 27 2013 at her home in Everson.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

At an age when many people would have long since settled into retirement, Irene Morgan expresses great passion about helping prisoners build their lives and avoid returning to jail.

Morgan, 73, recently changed her seven-year-old nonprofit organization's name to the Restorative Community Coalition, formerly the Reentry Coalition of Whatcom County.

Morgan and her husband of 55 years, Gary Morgan, are Everson residents who owned Morgan's Meats for 20 years. Irene has been a registered family counselor for nearly 25 years.

Question: Irene, why the name change?

Answer: We have broadened our focus and we wanted our name to reflect this. We advocate, we educate, we connect people. We hold monthly meetings and we have dozens of members who are working to help prisoners.

Q: How did you become so passionate about helping prisoners?

A: In 2006 I read about a former prisoner, Don Kirchner, who lives in Sedona, Arizona, and about his inspirational book, "A Matter of Time." I first met him in person late that year when we had a meeting with 14 people and formed our organization. He has visited us many times, and we're still in regular contact.

He had an air transport business and once, when times were hard, he found himself convicted of transporting drugs. He was originally given a 25-year-sentence and served time in 11 jails in the first two and a half years before he was released after he convinced them he was not part of a drug cartel.

Q: Does he help a lot of people?

A: Everywhere he went in prison, he would help prisoners. Officials could see what a good man he is. This is the way it is with so many prisoners. So many are good people who made a mistake.

Q: What's the work of your organization?

A: We're mainly focused on helping local prisoners successfully return to society. We work with prisoners from federal, state and county jails.

I've always known that prisons didn't work. If prison did work, we wouldn't have a two-thirds recidivism rate. Eighty percent of prisoners are in for nonviolent crimes, mostly involving drugs.

Q: Does the word "restorative" in your name relate to the concept of restorative justice?

A: Yes. Restorative justice is an old, wise system. The perpetrator and the victim of wrongdoing get with their families with an arbitrator. Each tells his story and the perpetrator has to admit to wrongdoing and agree to a contract. This can be a very healing process.

Locally, a form of restorative justice is being used by the Community Accountability Board, a diversion program for young first- and second-offenders. Why aren't we using restorative justice for adults?

Q: How important is educating the public?

A: For us that's probably the most important thing. When I've told people what I was doing, some would take two steps back, as though I had a contagious disease. The media has done a good job of convincing the public that all prisoners are bad, when that simply isn't close to being the case.

Q: Talk about your vision.

A: It would be a building in the county where we would provide transitional housing, educational and life skills management and recovery services. ... We would like to partner with local businesses who support this concept. We want to establish a wellness center and a farm that would teach former prisoners how to grow food.

LEARN MORE

For more information about the Restorative Community Coalition, go to whatcomrec.org or reentrycoalition.com.

Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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