If there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?
The question is a simple one, yet full of profundity. It is nearly universal in application—who among us doesn’t have a past decision that we lament? A choice that changed our future path and the lives of those around us? And how could things have been different if someone close to us had advised us to go a different way?
In her work as a detective of the Seattle Police Department, Kim Bogucki has seen firsthand the results of poor decisions based on bad or non-existent advice. While working with the younger homeless population of the city, Bogucki realized she didn’t understand much about that group, or why they made the decisions they did. She began asking herself, What if someone were to intervene in their lives? Would it make a difference?
Bogucki’s question was the impetus for what is now The If Project. The If Project asks residents in the Washington State Corrections System to write down any advice they would like to have received that might have prevented them from ending up behind bars. A 90-minute documentary on the program will premiere at this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival.
“I asked [Bogucki], ‘What do you want from us?'” says Renata Abramson, a prisoner at the Washington Correctional Center for Women. “She said, ‘Well, I’m out there helping the kids, so I’m wondering what might have helped you. So, if there was something somebody might have said or done that would’ve helped you, or prevented you from being where you are now, what would’ve it been?
“When she asked that—that was asking out of care,” Abramson continues. “I almost felt like a kid standing there, and she was like, ‘Come on, if I could’ve helped you, what could’ve I done? And in my mind, it opened another road … it made me think that things could’ve been different for me, if I could’ve had somebody who cared enough to just ask that question.”
Abramson started asking her fellow prisoners the question that Bogucki had first asked her. When Bogucki returned, Abramson presented her with a stack of written responses to the question, and the If Project was born.
“I started reading the answers and I was blown away, because the amount of insight and knowledge and information that were in those answers from the women that were locked up,” Bogucki recalls in an interview with the Marshall Project. “It was a plethora of knowledge that I had never even thought of. Why not use the stories? Not in a Scared Straight way, but to get those stories out to kids and try to prevent them from making bad choices. I always say the magic is when the former inmate shares their story from a heartfelt honest place.”
The project has also had an impact on how police officers interact with the men and women they encounter in their work. “You have to understand in police work,” Bogucki says, “it’s day in and day out, seeing people at their worst—period. This project has shown folks in my profession that some people can actually change. We need to look at the person not as a felon, and try and figure out what we as police officers can do to keep people out of prison. Mentoring is effective, whether it’s traditional or random. Police are in a unique position to mentor on a daily basis and many do probably without realizing it.”
“If someone would’ve told me that I was relevant; if someone would’ve told me I was special; if someone would’ve told me that I was valid, that I was loved, that I was inspirational, that I was needed—if someone had told me that I was more than the emotions I was feeling, I believe that would’ve made a difference,” laments Andrea Altimer, another resident at the Washington Correctional Center.
The good news for those like Andrea and Renata is that transformation needn’t be merely a missed opportunity. Through in-prison ministry, counselling, and mentoring, many men and women who have made mistakes have been changed, becoming model prisoners during their incarceration and valued members of their communities after release. And while asking “what if” can be an invaluable tool for preventing others from making the same poor choices, asking “what’s next” can open doors and opportunities, and enable those who have made mistakes to become the mentors they lacked.
To find out more about how you can be a source of encouragement and support for prisoners and their families, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/action.