Filomena Washington was looking for a place where she belonged, for people she fit in with. But she made the wrong choice: After graduating from a swank prep school, she started hanging out with gang members and selling drugs.
It was less than a year, she says, between the time she found her homies to being convicted for murder in 1995 at the age of 24. She's now serving a life sentence in Purdy, Wash., with no possibility of parole -- a fate that she wants to help others avoid by telling her story.
"It was cool to go mailbox bashing. It was cool to do a drive-by," Washington says. "I felt wanted. I felt needed."
Now she is in prison and alone with the thoughts of everyday things that she will never do again, like giving or getting a hug -- they aren't allowed. "I don't get to go to the grocery store or drink milk out of a real milk carton," she says. "[I can't] run my feet through carpet -- I don't have carpet. I have concrete and I have metal, for the past 15 years."
Washington is one of six inmates at the state Corrections Center for Women who have been filmed so far for a project that started with a question, one that has already changed the lives of prison participants who are hoping they can alter the fate of children who hear their voices:
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 answer for Washington: getting involved with a gang wasn't worth it.
Seattle Police Detective Kim Bogucki first posed the question to a group of inmates last March during a visit she made to Purdy, located on the Kitsap Peninsula. Since then, she says, what is now called the "If Project" has taken on a life of its own, with more than 200 inmates answering the question in essays that led Bogucki to recruit a professional film team.
They are now working on a short documentary to show in schools and a full-length version for general audiences, with excerpts of the first six interviews taken at Purdy to be shown at a project fundraiser planned Thurs., July 30 on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
Bogucki is a community outreach officer who has created a number of successful youth programs in her 21 years on the force, including Capitol Hill's "Doughnut Dialogues" between police and youth. When the Girl Scouts asked her last year to participate in its Beyond Bars program for the daughters of inmates, she went to Purdy to meet with the mothers, at one point asking them the "what if" question.
The initial response, Bogucki says, was blank stares. But one inmate -- Renata Abramson, a 45-year-old mother of four doing time on drug charges -- took the question to heart. In May, the detective was back at the prison for a Girl Scout sleepover when Abramson came up and presented her with a stack of papers. They were handwritten answers to the question that Abramson had collected on her own.
Since then, many of the women have rewritten the essays, Bogucki says, going deeper and reaching farther back in their lives for what led them to prison. Initially, "some of them were saying drug addiction," she says. "And then all of a sudden it's like, wait a second, now let's go back to when I started making the choices to do the drugs -- what was going on?"
For some, it was domestic violence or an unaddressed mental illness. For at least two inmates, it was being molested -- something the two have only just shared with their families as a result of the project, Bogucki says, leading them to re-evaluate their lives and start healing.
She's hoping the film project -- which so far has raised $9,500 from the Seattle Baptist Union, the Looking Out Foundation and small donors -- will have the same effect on youngsters, teaching them that it's OK to ask for help with problems before going down the wrong path. "We know the kids that are in the system," she says. "But the hope is with this video, that [we reach] the kid in the back in the class that we don't even know is right on the edge of making that choice."
The film will be part of a program in which she will hook up kids with mentors or other services, in part through an interactive website that she wants to create for youth (for adults, a coffee table book is also planned). No matter what background the Purdy inmates came from -- some from poverty and others from wealthy Microsoft families, Bogucki says -- the common thread in the women's essays is "the lack of a positive role model in their life, the lack of a person that who would actually just listen."
"That seems to be the overall thing," she says. She's hoping that, by bringing children the raw and emotional voices of women who've made the wrong choice, people -- children -- on the last stop before being six feet under will listen.
"It's OK to be you," Washington says in her interview, "because in the long run, that's all you'll have. When all your friends or your homeboys are shot, killed or locked up, it's only you."