Locations: Gresham, Oregon
Harry Olsen, founder of Phoenix Rising Transitions, was incarcerated 7-8 times from 1976-1991 at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). While in prison, two volunteers, formerly incarcerated N’jee and Rod McAffee, inspired Olsen to come up with the idea for Phoenix Rising Transitions.
When released in 1991, transitioning back into society was overwhelming for Olsen since there weren’t many resources available for those formerly incarcerated. Rather, Christianity was the only form of reentry treatment the formerly incarcerated had for spiritual development. It was not until 1993 did Olsen begin to form meaningful relationships in his community. He became motivated to improve the reentry process in order to help his friends when they were released from prison. He got help from guards who used to work at the prison, and in turn, helped Olsen return to prison as a volunteer. “In 2001, PHOENIX RISING Transitions initiated its first class at the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI). Now, in 2009, through the work of fifty volunteers from a score union, faith- and community- based organizations, PHOENIX touches the lives of more than sixty prisoners each month.”
“In order to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities offered after release, a transformation and deep change of attitude must occur. Therefore, PHOENIX aims to establish conditions wherein self-transformation may occur. These conditions must include the following points: 1) freedom of choice – PHOENIX classes are strictly voluntary; 2) the opportunity for participants to take leadership roles alongside community members; 3) the space where meaningful and intentional conversations can occur; 4) an openness to new ideas and relationships; 5) the trust, equality, and respect that comes from sincere and consistent volunteer involvement.”
Phoenix aims for their participants to see themselves as mentees, students, or anyone other than an “ex-con.”Phoenix is contracted through an organization called Impact Northwest (Impact NW) who pays them for mentoring and “provides some rental and other assistance to the mentees. The interaction with ordinary citizens on a human-to-human level is at the root of everything.” Their motto is, ‘the missing link in prison-to-community transition’ – is referring to that human-to-human connection. Phoenix tries to “un-institutionalize” people who have been severely institutionalized so that they can live life successfully in the community.
“PHOENIX’s In-Reach projects differ from every other prison program through the involvement of community leaders in an ever-expanding pool of union, faith- and non-faith organizations. PHOENIX’s broad-base approach fosters cross cultural, pro-social attitudes and activities through training inside and outside the prison…PHOENIX’s Community In-Reach projects implement…the conditions wherein self-transformation may occur-within the DOC. Projects include: Problem-Solving (cognitive restructuring); the Transition Forum (with its transitional resources and intermediate training arena for PHOENIX volunteer mentors and student leaders); and Relational Culture Strategies (leadership training with its wide-range of community members) to facilitate self-transformation-for volunteers and for prisoners.
“PHOENIX’s In-the-Community projects will continue [their purpose] upon release. Problem-Solving in the Field (PSF) sharpens the skills taught at CRCI. Involvement with the MACG’s Leadership Institutes for Public Life (LIPL) continues the work begun in RCS. MACG teachers have noted that graduates of PHOENIX’s In-Reach projects are better prepared for the LIPLs than most members sent from other MACG institutions. Mentor Teams that consist of PHOENIX volunteers, cultural advisors, and newly released parolees strengthen the skills and further develop the abilities begun within the prison setting.”
“The community organizing model we use (based on the Industrial Areas Foundation/Saul Alinsky) is perfect for breaking down cultural barriers. MACG – the local IAF affiliate – is broad based. It includes faith, labor, community and educational institutions. [Phoenix] bring[s] in volunteers from other MACG institutions (and other sources in the community as well) to talk with students one-on-one on specific topics of conversation. After [Phoenix] talk[s] in pairs for 10-20 minutes, [they] share what [they] heard and what [they] have in common in the large group. This is deeply transformative for both the prisoners and the visitors/volunteers as [they] discover [their] shared humanity. It is excellent for breaking down stigma (which can go both ways).
Karen Meurer, wife of Olsen had managed a small Habitat for Humanity in Baltimore, so she currently takes care of the administrative aspects. She and Olsen both facilitate classes in the prison. The other class is taught by a part-time staffer and Phoenix has a part-time house manager as well. They typically work with about 15 people inside and up to 15 outside at any given time. The house holds six people and is usually full.
The most important thing – after deciding one wants to do something different – is to be around a variety of people, engaging in deep conversation. Recidivism rates drop significantly for prisoners who have had just ONE visit in the six months prior to their release
Staff have spoken numerous times to college classes, churches and synagogues. They have been interviewed on the radio (KBOO in Portland has a regular show called Prison Pipeline). They have also testified before city council, county council, special commissions (there was a special sentencing commission in recent years), state House and Senate committees, and lobby day visits to their own legislators’ offices.
Phoenix is under the DOC as a volunteer organization, so they are not contracted by the DOC and can retain more of their program integrity. Because they are a non-profit, Phoenix gets funding from the community, specifically those on their donor list. Phoenix does not receive much money from the general public due to lack of sympathy. Their mentorship program has contract funding from the Department of Community Justice, parole and probation unit in Multnomah County, and Oregon Hills Authority, an addiction treatment facility.
Currently, Phoenix is not economically stable due to the Second Chance Pell grant ran out a couple of years ago. RTC also stopped a mentor contract because they, too, stopped receiving grants. Phoenix also receives money from Impact Northwest, an organization that provides employment. Harry was sent to the hospital about a year ago, so funding was used to pay for his health, and a need for more staffing became prominent.
It’s hard to make a living running off of a non-profit for the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated because of the lack of sympathy or interest from the public.
In addition, there have been cases where the female mentors working with men mentees have fall in love and form a relationship. It breaks rules of volunteering under the bureaucratic system and probation protocol. As a result, the volunteer is fired and the schedules in Phoenix become disoriented.
What could be Improved:
Phoenix would like to pay their mentors who are formerly incarcerated part time. Although Phoenix does have strong data to prove that their treatment program is working, they seek to hire statisticians to update their database in order to provide current statistics and improve their program.