The crowded visitation room at WCCW reminded Eshom of a middle school cafeteria. In all her years in law enforcement, this was her first time setting foot in a prison.
She wasn’t sure what to talk about during that first meeting alone with Benefield. They'd been e-mailing for weeks, but this felt like an awkward first date.
The visitation room at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.
Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5
Eshom looked from left to right as inmates and their visitors trickled in. She wondered: Did all the other prisoners know she was a cop?
She had already planned to keep the cop-speak to a minimum and focus instead on brightening the mood.
"When I first seen Jen... she's just like, 'Bring it in, sister. Give me a hug!'" Benefield recalled.
Eshom tore off a corner of the soggy turkey and swiss sandwich she reluctantly bought from the prison vending machine, and she started talking to Benefield at their assigned table.
“I was trying to dominate the conversation so she wouldn’t ask me any questions,” Eshom said.
“‘Oh you grew up in Massachusetts? What was it like over there?’ ‘What’s prison like? What kind of jobs do they have? What are the classes like?’ I bombarded her with small chat.”
Eshom thought maybe the act of "breaking bread together" would begin a bond. So, she bought Benefield a vending machine meal, too.
Visit after visit, that became their routine: a vending machine lunch and light conversations about topics that allowed the two to avoid talking about themselves.
Benefield was funny and more well spoken than Eshom expected.
"Kandyce is quite a force," Eshom said. "If you're not quite as sharp as her, you're going to miss it because she's really quick-witted.”
Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5
The officer saw that Benefield was a planner: A woman who made to-do lists, even behind bars. She showed all the signs of being motivated to raise her daughter and change her life.
"How did this woman ever end up in prison?" Eshom thought to herself. "She seems to have such a straight head on her shoulders."
Benefield didn't trust Eshom enough to really talk.
“I'm like, 'Basically, if this relationship is going to work, you can't be a cop,'” Benefield said.
Eshom couldn’t learn Benefield’s story until she could muster up the courage to humanize herself.
"I had to let my guard down a little bit.” she said. “I did have to be consciously vulnerable to a woman who, in my everyday life, I would probably avoid.”
Always Locked Up
Benefield was in prison for a second-degree robbery conviction when she signed up for the If Project.
As excited as she was for the chance at a fresh start, the thought of surviving in the real world terrified her.
“Am I more comfortable inside? Absolutely,” Benefield said.
After all, by her mid-30s, she had spent more of her life living in secure facilities than she'd spent living free. She’d never had a job before. She never had an apartment of her own. And she said she didn’t know a single person that she could trust.
Being "locked up" — in juvenile detention centers, residential treatment facilities, jails and prison — had never felt like a big deal. It was just her "way of life," she said.
And that life was far less traumatizing than the one she had lived on the outside.
“I felt like my destiny was to die like my dad did in prison," she said.
‘I Never Felt Comfortable In My Own Skin'
Benefield was 6 the first time she interacted with a police officer. She remembered watching the cop haul her father off to prison. Her dad was the only person who ever made her feel safe, she said.
"I never felt safe with the cops. I just felt like they were never on my side,” she said. "A lot of times when I ran away from home and stuff like that, the cops were the ones who always brought me back home.”
And for Benefield, home was not a happy place.
She lived with her mother in a government housing project in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her mother’s boyfriend molested her for two years, Benefield said, until she turned 8.
A photo of Kandyce Benefield at age 7.
Provided (Kandyce Benefield)
"I was very angry. I didn't want people to touch me,” she said. "I always felt like my skin was crawling. I felt I was always trapped in myself. I felt alone."
Benefield said she got into trouble for the first time when she was 8. An officer took her to a juvenile detention center after she assaulted another girl on the playground.
"When I first hit that girl, when I first got in trouble, that was the first time I got taken away from my home,” she said. “It was the first time I felt safe enough to sleep at night — even though I didn’t know where I was, and I was around a whole bunch of strangers.”
Her mother didn’t stay involved in her life, Benefield said, and never believed her boyfriend had hurt her daughter. That catapulted Benefield into a childhood that rotated between foster care homes and running away.
"No one wanted to keep me because I was a violent child. I would act out because I just never felt comfortable in my own skin,” Benefield said.
And when she wasn’t on the streets or in another foster care home, she was in juvenile jails or locked treatment facilities.
Benefield spent her adult years in and out of jail. As she racked up misdemeanor and felony charges, she struggled with untreated mental illness, heroin and methamphetamine addictions, and the absence of healthy relationships in her life.
“You got a lot of people who have parents and stuff in their life and people that are always there. They have that mom, that sister, that brother. I had no one," she said. "Life is hard by yourself and when you're your own best friend all the time, y'know?"
Perhaps the hardest part was figuring out: Where could she go when she had no home?
"I had to figure out how I was going to get to my destination. Sometimes I walked... I would bum money from people to get on the bus until I got to the nearest dope spot or my nearest dealer, (and I'd) go (sell drugs) real quick to put money in my pocket," she said.
"I was just out robbing people, stealing, selling drugs, doing anything that I needed to get by."
Kim Bogucki, the Seattle police officer who founded the If Project, said Benefield’s experience of lacking a positive adult role model is a textbook reason why many prisoners are arrested again after they’re released.
Eighty-three percent of the state prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested at least once during the 9 years following their release, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice study on recidivism.
“Women end up getting incarcerated for two top reasons: chemical dependency and unhealthy relationships. So how can we give them a healthy relationship?” Bogucki said.
Kim Bogucki is a Seattle police officer and the co-founder of the If Project.
Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5
That was Bogucki’s motivation when she launched the mentorship program six years ago. It's one of several Washington-based initiatives she’s spearheaded to keep people from returning to jails and prisons across the state.
“I never want to take away from what a victim's experience was or try to change their mind about what they went through at all,” Bogucki said. "What we’re trying to do is figure out how to help people successfully reintegrate so that we can reduce the number of victims that are out there.”