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'Ready for Release' program aspires to turn Washington inmates into entrepreneurs

When it comes to combating addiction and crime, there is a Seattle-based program on a quest for success inside a prison in Belfair, Washington.

BELFAIR, Wash. — At Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, inmates like Tracy McGee said now is the time for transformation. 

"I want to change our future. Change my family's future," McGee said. "I was clean and sober for over 10 years and then relapsed when I found out my son had cancer. It was a terrible thing for me to do, but I didn’t know how to deal with it in any healthy way. I ended up using again and getting in trouble."

She expects to be released in March.

Breena Johnson of Everett said she has been at the prison since February of last year for drug-related charges.

"It wasn’t until this arrest and being away from my children that I really see the effects that incarceration has. I never had children to be really responsible to before, so it is not fair to them," Johnson said.

All three women are finding help from Ventures, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has created a circle of support for inmates that take part in the 'Ready for Release' program.

Jen Hughes is the Director of Programs at Ventures.

On Wednesday evening, Hughes told the program's graduating class, "the world is lucky to have you and your courage."

For some, courage is needed to step foot in the classroom for an eight-week course where the conversation is often candid. The spring training program had 17 inmates participate.

Some participants shared the reasons why they are in prison and plans for life after their release. They met once a week for three hours at a time. Instructors helped them build a business plan. The training program covered the basics of business marketing, sales, financial management, and operations, according to Ventures.

On graduation night, each aspiring entrepreneur had five minutes to pitch their business in a room filled with peers and members of the Ventures team.

Ideas included a mobile salon, a photography studio, and a gym focused on fitness and sobriety.

McGee is interested in becoming a real estate agent. She also wants to start a painting business with her son.

Sarah Fowler of Longview is serving 51 months for burglaries and possession of drugs.

Fowler was praised by the Ventures team for the work she did on her business plan, and how she helped others in her class.

During graduation, Hughes stood beside Fowler and told the room, "what I love is we would have somebody come up and somebody would give a pitch. She’d be in the back at her work station, and they would say, 'yeah, everybody is my customer,' and she is like, 'no, they are not.' She would also say, why do they care about your business."

Hughes praised Fowler for thinking like an entrepreneur.

For others, building a business means breaking the cycle.

"My brother, my father and I share one thing in common. We are all incarcerated," Johnson explained. 

She wants to make sure her kids do not follow in her footsteps. 

She is working on a nonprofit that would help the children of incarcerated parents.

"My nonprofit is a form of retribution for me. It is a way for me to give back to my community," said Johnson. "I know that my story and my testimony can change lives, and that is what I am dedicated to doing."

The plan for the graduates now is to get ready for release. Some inmates in the program are in the final stretch of their sentence while others still have many more months in lock up.

"I now have many choices, and I didn’t have those before," said Fowler.

"I will never come back here again," said McGee. "When I walk out of here I'm going to be the best person I can be."

Beto Yarce is the Executive Director at Ventures. Yarce said they have collected close to a $100,000, and they continue to raise funds so they can keep the program going. Ventures works closely with the Department of Corrections and Tacoma Community College to make the 'Ready for Release' curriculum available to inmates at Mission Creek Corrections Center.

Credit: Ventures