Making a New Life and Speaking out after Prison (Patricia Coldeen)

Sylvia: It’s February 13, 2017 and I’m interviewing Patricia Coldeen. I know you’ve been through some hard experiences and in recent years you’ve made yourself a whole new life.

What do you think in your past led you to become an activist?

 Patricia: I was raised in a family where I was encouraged to believe in our system. Which sometimes can get very discouraging. But, to write letters and vote and participate in marches and things like that. The first thing I remember is a bill was introduced to pass legislation to make it legal for vehicles to be on Oregon beaches. And we were like, ‘No!’ I was probably like 4th grade or something? 5th grade? Grade school. And it was Senator Mark Hatfield.

So we wrote a letter to Mark Hatfield laying out all the reasons why we didn’t want this to become a law. How it’d be detrimental to the beach and we even got pictures. I remember commenting on California beaches and how trashed they were, that there were couches. There were old tires. I don’t remember how we got that information but we included it in our letter. Cause I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, we don’t want our beaches to look like that!” And we sent this letter off and we got a response. “Thank you for” you know, “showing interest,” and he was in favor of not passing the bill as well.

It didn’t pass. And so I remember feeling that empowerment, you know? So, that was my first kind of experience with it.

Was this was a family project, to write the letter?

 Yes, definitely. And that instilled in me that idea that we can make social change and we need to become part of our system–which can be very overwhelming, you know? But I’ve always believed in our political system! Which sometimes can be very discouraging at times.

Well, particularly since you found yourself on the wrong side of the law.

 For sure on that. Definitely. I remember my mother trying to tell me, “Trish, you have to join the system to beat the system.”

What was your family background? What did they do for a living?

 My father was an air traffic controller. And they were quite older parents. My dad had fought in World War II, the tail end of it. He was in the Air Corps. He became an air traffic controller. My mother had been a bank teller. Raised four children. She did some different jobs, like clerical for a psychiatrist for a little while. Mostly just raised four children. Which was enough!

So you know, I got involved in drugs and alcohol. Part of that was kind of like rage against the machine. Which, you know, is like this term, there’s a band called that. It started in my junior high years. We got transferred away from Eugene into Yakima, Washington, which is a really close-minded, very small community. Lot of migrant workers there, you know? A lot of family turmoil going on and having to leave all my siblings.

 I’m the youngest. And my brother and sisters all stayed back in Eugene and went to college. But I got involved in drugs and alcohol and that’s a whole long story in and of itself. It took over my life for a very, very long time. But, I still remember at different times we would talk a lot about the goings on of the world. The next thing that stands out to me is I was with a Hispanic man who was 15 years older than myself and he taught me a lot about Cesar Chavez and the labor movement and what he had been through in L.A. And I was, always, “Oh! How cool that was!”

And then we went to war in the Gulf. The first Gulf War. And Frank was his name, Francisco, he found out about a march [here in Eugene] and we marched from the Federal building to I-5 and stopped I-5 traffic, North and South. So, we marched from the Federal Building to Glenwood and on to the I-5. And I felt like that really made a statement because we stopped I-5 traffic. It felt very empowering.

 And then we got tear gassed and I remember we had to go to Burger King and wash our face, cause it did burn. I didn’t get it bad. But, it was enough to make me wash my eyes out with water. So I’ve always felt compelled to be involved in things. But, then on the other hand, drugs and alcohol really takes that away from you. Takes your choices away, takes your ability to become involved in your community, you know? So I ended up in prison. Ended up in prison three different times. Cause I would just get out and do the same thing over again.

What were your drugs of choice?

 Heroin was my drug of choice. I did methamphetamine, too. Yeah. You know? It’s so weird. Now I help people recover. I work in an alcohol and drug treatment program.

You said you had two jobs, what else are you doing?

 I work at a Jackson’s. Connected with Shell and Chevron. It’s a little market in Glenwood. And they hire people with felony convictions. And they have a tuition reimbursement program. Helped me pay for going back to school and getting my bachelor’s at the University of Oregon.

And I’m on my way to transitioning out with them. I’m down to two days a week and I’m probably gonna be one day a week and I really want to write them a letter. Cause the owner’s out in Idaho and they’re expanding. I really felt a sense of responsibility to be a good employee, to speak out and tell the people around me that I had a felony conviction.

This is kind of a transition into the second part of my activism, to become part of Partnership for Safety and Justice and their work for sentencing reform. [Partnership for Safety and Justice works with people convicted of crime, survivors of crime, and the families of both to advocate for policies that make Oregon’s approach to public safety more effective and more just.] Part of it was like, once I got into recovery I felt a sense of responsibility to speak out and say, “I’m a person in recovery from drugs and alcohol. I have felony convictions and look who I am today.” You know? I’m not that same person. With help and support we do change.

 And the stigma that’s associated with it, and the shame that’s associated with it. Like, one of my co-workers was reading the paper and there was two people that were in the limelight. And she said, “Oh. I don’t like that guy. He’s got felony convictions.” And I looked at her and I said, “Lois. I have felony convictions.” I think she said, “He’s a felon. He’s a felon.” You know? And I look at her and I’m like, “Lois. I’m a felon.” And she goes, “Oh yeah!” [laughs] She knows, she just forgot! [laughs] It was a teaching moment.

When you were incarcerated, was there any way for this tendency of yours to speak out or to organize, to be used?

 In different ways, sure. It’s really hard when you’re really angry and you see yourself as a victim. I really believe there has to be a shift. And mixed in with addiction and not being ready and blaming everybody else. But I did some things that were really cool. The first time I was in, I was able to become involved with a writing group. It was called Write around Portland. They came in and we got published. And it was really empowering.

 I wrote a poem about where we bombed Baghdad. That was the second time. And writing poems and prose about my feelings. It was really a place to be heard — where, you know, you don’t have a voice? You really don’t have much of a voice in there. And we’d speak out, write letters [to publications of the Partnership for Safety and Justice that we received in prison.]

So then when I got out I was reading, living in a recovery house. I was 44. Cause I went to prison three times. I would just get out and do the same thing and, you know, be angry at everything that’s going on around me, feeling very overwhelmed. I think a lot of addicts and alcoholics feel things very intensely and we don’t know how to deal with it.

So this just kind of calms you down and makes you feel good?

 Yeah. Yeah. Where you can manage your feelings and they’re not so overwhelming. You know?

And how did you run against the law? May I ask what you were in for?

 Well, most of it was really just having possession. Or prostitution. I did sell drugs for a little while and they caught me doing that. Paying for my habit. It all came down to that. I didn’t do any violent crimes. You kind of push those morals and values about what you would never do. You push ‘em a little further and a little further till you do things that you think you would have never done. Which for me was prostitution and some of those things. You just do whatever you gotta do. I relate to that feeling of doing anything to get it, you know.

 So finally I was able to get some treatment. The first couple of times I didn’t get treatment. I had three years I went to prison the first time and did not get into any kind of treatment. I worked. I got out in the parks and that was a really cool experience and it gave me some confidence back in myself and my abilities.

In the State Parks we got to use chainsaws. We got to clear paths. Hard work. It was hard, physical work out in the parks, cleaning up after ice storms. Using wood chippers, clearing trails, all of it. I loved it. Cause I liked the physical and I love nature and it was really good for my spirit to get out there. So you got out of the prison for a little while. You had to return and every day you returned you had to do a strip search, cavity search, everything, to go back into the prison. But it was worth it.

But then the second time, I did get a treatment program and I almost felt like I was gonna get it. I did get quite a bit of support when I got out but I was just too scared to let go of whatever it is I thought drugs and alcohol was doing for me. You think it’s your lifeline and I just wasn’t ready to let go of that yet. Then the third time, I was like, OK, I don’t wanna go to prison anymore. I’m done. You know, in and out of county jails, in and out of prison and, I was like OK. I’ll do whatever it takes to stay out of prison. It took getting clean and sober.

And then I was 44. So I was living in a recovery house and I read the paper and it was by Ron Chase [then the head of Sponsors, a great program for rehabilitating formerly incarcerated people into the community. He was] talking about Partnership for Safety and Justice and their Think Outside the Box campaign to remove: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” from job applications. So far it was only Eugene and Portland, and Ron Chase at Sponsors was talking highly of Partnership for Safety and Justice. So I called Partnership for Safety and Justice and said, “What can I do? I need to get involved in this.”

At this point were you going to community college?

 Yes! I was going to Lane Community College and trying to figure out what I want to do. Part of me has often thought if I was younger I would’ve gotten more involved in the political system. I remember the Vietnam War and protesting that, and my sister had the M.I.A. bracelets. We loved Kennedy and when he died, and you know, the next Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and all that was going on in my house a lot. Time magazine was always on the table and I was a real news junkie. Anyway.

Partnership for Safety and Justice was such a wonderful fit for me. With them I was able to phone bank for Val Hoyle [then running for the Oregon House of Representatives]. I was able to go door to door and help, and KEZI came to my house and interviewed me about the Think Outside The Box campaign and I was on the news! And a couple of my customers commented at Jackson’s, cause I’m a clerk there and pump gas, and “Oh! I saw you on the news!” There it is again, that responsibility to talk about, “Yes, I am a person who’s formerly incarcerated. I have been convicted. And yet, I’m not just a ‘felon,’ I am much more.”

.I’m a human being who made some mistakes and now I’m trying to change my life and with support and help and if you offer me a job and you know, help me, let me have a house.

Food. You know? And my education. Which in some states you can’t get an education.

 Actually, no, I shouldn’t say that. The Federal Pell Grants, they do deny you at first, but now there’s a form you can fill out and say, that was my experience. But I had to say “Yes” and they would deny it and then I filled out a form that I’ve completed treatment and so then you can get it. I think that’s actually gotten better. I think that’s changed.

So you’re saying that it used to be that they refused you and they had a way of your getting over that hurdle and now it’s even easier.

 Yeah, I think they’ve made it even easier. But, in some states you can’t vote. In some states you can’t get food stamps. It’s the new Jim Crow. You know, Michelle Alexander, she’s an amazing woman. She’s an African-American woman who wrote the book, The New Jim Crow. I learned about Michelle Alexander by going to a three-day symposium. I got to go live up at Reed College for three days, stay there and do activism workshops. People came from all over the Western states. And we got to live there and we took workshops on telling our story, the best ways to make social change. The different social media, how to organize, how to reach different populations. And a woman came and talked about Michelle Alexander.

She was a prosecuting attorney. I think she’s now a defense attorney. And her book is amazing. And it’s very scary because she’s all factual. She just lays it out about history and how things evolved over time and if you look at the way African-Americans were treated even after the Emancipation Proclamation.

 Still not being able to buy land, get housing, discriminated against, all those things. So it’s very scary when you think about what’s happening today. When Michelle Alexander lays it out, it’s very telling–the disparity for all the African-Americans involved in our criminal justice system and the drug laws that punish crack cocaine–which happened to be, you know, in African-American communities–much [more severely] than the white powder cocaine of all the rich white lawyers who had that. And, so after you get these felony convictions you can no longer rent a place. People can legally discriminate against you if you have a felony conviction.

When we talked before you said something about having gone to Washington.

 So, a couple more things that are really awesome. Through Partnership for Safety and Justice, I got to work on that Think Outside the Box campaign and it was successful. And now I think the whole State of Oregon has made a law that they no longer have “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” on their applications.

 You have to talk to the person face to face before you [can ask that question]. And then decide whether they’re qualified for the job. After that I got to go to Portland and talk about the obstacles and barriers for people who have felony convictions and to talk to a panel that came from Washington, D.C. There were doctors, some people in political office, some people in criminal justice.

 I think it was through Voices and Faces of Recovery. But Partnership for Safety and Justice helped me get there. And it just felt very empowering to be able to speak out, tell your story. When Sponsors was gonna be cut some funding, I went to the Public Safety Budget Committee meeting, and spoke up for what Sponsors had done for me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that. And how prevention and recovery works, you know. And then, with Patty Katz [then on the staff of Partnership for Safety and Justice,] we got to go to Washington, D.C. And it was a gathering called Addiction Unite.

It was about lobbying for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act that allocated money for prevention, aftercare services, and the education of physicians about the dangers of indiscriminate prescribing of oxycontin. Fortunately it passed.

The event was really cool, Patrick Kennedy came out and talked to us, cause he’s in recovery. [Patrick Kennedy, the youngest son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, served for two terms as a congressman for Rhode Island.] I read his book. It’s called A Common Struggle. It’s a really good book. It’s about his overcoming addictions. And mental health issues.

So, we got to go march on the mall there. And there was quite a few people. I mean we expected like 30,000. But a hurricane came through. There was a couple states that couldn’t come and be represented and we barely made it through. But there was like 10,000 people there and we got to go talk to legislators. We got to talk to [Senator] Ron Wyden’s aide. And [Congressman] Peter DeFazio, we got to talk to his aide.

 So that was really empowering. It was really amazing. And all kinds of musicians came. And it was covered in the news. Washington, D.C.’s news, yeah. Not as much as we would’ve liked it to be. It was streamed live. My sister got to watch it on TV. Somehow, on one of her cable channels, it was streamed live. It’s just really empowering when you feel like you have a voice and may be heard, you know?

My most passionate work now is at the Willamette Family Drug and Alcohol Treatment Program. We have several different sites. We have a residential program where women and mothers live. We have a new dads program that we got a grant for–fathers can live there with their children. Which is just this amazing thing. The location is in Eugene.

We work really hard to have wraparound services where we offer mental health, medical clinic downstairs, [to deal with] whatever obstacles might come into your way to being successful in treatment. Like rides, housing–which is limited, not much. Peer support. That’s my job is to help them connect with different resources in the community. And we really want to make everything right there. Like the medical clinic is just downstairs. Mental health is just right there. So they don’t have to go, I mean, “You gotta go over here to get this. You gotta go over there to get this.” I sign ‘em up for Ridesource [an individualized transportation program in Eugene] right away. Get the bus pass nailed right there, so they have got transportation, you know. I really feel good about Willamette Family and the work they do in the community.

Who supports them? Where do they get the money?

 Oh my goodness. Well, we did get the Rotary grant. I think three places got that. One of ‘em was us. We’re a non-profit so there’s some federal monies that come in. Medicaid, OHP help, pay for a lot. The Oregon Health Plan. Medicaid. And whoever else we can ask for money from. I know that we’ve got a lot of people that are good at doing that. They go out to the different community members who want to support us. It’s Willamette Family Services. They’ve been around since like 1967.

 Buckley House, that’s how they started. That was the first, George and Honey Buckley, it was out of his house. He was an alcoholic in recovery and he would just take people in. And he had a sign in his house that said, “Not every human is an alcoholic, but every alcoholic is human.”

That sign still stands in Buckley House today. I don’t know if it’s the exact same one butabove the door there, when you walk in, that’s what you see. And we try to remain true to that philosophy. I went through Willamette Family. They’re definitely part of the foundation of my recovery. So, it’s pretty cool I work there.

 

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About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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