Seattle nonprofit offers chance at a good life and good health after prison

By Diane Daniel, American Heart Association News

Chelsey Johnson was a resident at Weld Seattle and later a house manager. (Photo by Maximilian Golub)
Chelsey Johnson was a resident at Weld Seattle and later a house manager. (Photo by Maximilian Golub)

After four years in a Washington state prison for first-degree burglary, Chelsey Johnson learned she was eligible for a work-release program that would shave the final year off her sentence.

She was excited by the prospect, but also scared. Then 31, she had spent half her life either doing drugs or doing time.

"I knew I needed to make massive changes," Johnson said. "The whole time in prison I didn't get into any trouble. I got my GED and graduated from their college program. But I'd never done anything on my own before."

She turned to Carolyn Presnell, a fellow inmate she befriended who was released shortly after Johnson arrived.

At that time in 2019, Presnell was a house manager with Weld Seattle. The nonprofit operates a sober transitional housing program for people who have been incarcerated or those recovering from addiction. Residents live in properties donated by real estate developers who are awaiting permitting or demolition.

That Presnell also had been incarcerated was no coincidence. The entire Weld Seattle staff has been a part of the population it serves.

For the first six months, Johnson had to wear an ankle monitor and report regularly to a corrections officer. Weld Seattle helped her navigate a strict schedule and plan her future.

"We had house meetings every week, where we always made three goals," Johnson said. "I needed to get my license back. I needed credit cards. I needed to pay off fines. I needed to buy a car. They helped me to transition to life out in the world in little baby steps by teaching me how to set goals and hold myself accountable."

After half a year, Johnson went on to manage her own Weld Seattle house. During the 18 months she was with Weld, she bought a car and got a job at a restaurant, where she's now a general manager.

Her success story isn't the norm.

Laws, regulations and other restrictions make it difficult for people with criminal records to secure jobs and housing, with homelessness 10 times more common among people released from state prisons than the general public, according to a 2018 report from the research and advocacy nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

And a history of structural racism in the criminal justice system has disproportionately affected Hispanic people and especially Black people, who are more likely to receive longer sentences than white people, according to a 2020 report on structural racism and health disparities from the American Heart Association.

Within three years, an estimated 68% of people released from state prisons are rearrested, according to a 2018 report from the Department of Justice. But among the more than 300 people who have gone through the Weld Seattle housing program since it started in 2017, less than 3% have been rearrested, and 60% have moved directly to permanent housing.

"Our success rates are things of myth, but a lot of the reason is baked into our structure" to help people stay sober and reintegrate into society, said Jody Bardacke, Weld Seattle's housing program manager.

"We have a lot of rules, including that everyone is in some kind of a recovery program," he said. "We have weekly meetings and a lot of group discussion. But the reality of it is that most of the work lies with the individual, and we're really clear about that."

Like all staff members, Bardacke knows from experience. He was briefly jailed and has spent time in rehab programs for drug and alcohol addiction and transitional housing.

Jody Bardacke spent time in transitional housing and rehab programs for addiction. He’s now the housing program manager at Weld Seattle. (Photo by Mark Hoy)
Jody Bardacke spent time in transitional housing and rehab programs for addiction. He's now the housing program manager at Weld Seattle. (Photo by Mark Hoy)

Weld Seattle residents, who pay $500 a month in membership dues, sometimes stay for only a couple months, while others stay up to a year or go on to become house managers for up to two more years.

The nonprofit also runs a jobs program and is the leading partner in the 1426 Project, a resource center providing help with housing, jobs, legal issues and health and wellness to people re-entering the community after incarceration. It is due to open in 2022, with Presnell as director.

Weld Seattle recently received a grant for the housing program through funding from the AHA's Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund, which invests in local, evidence-based efforts to reduce social and economic barriers to health equity.

For Johnson, Weld Seattle's support led her not only to find housing and work, but also a reconnection with her family, whose trust she finally regained.

"You can't be in that program and not fall in love with it," she said. "They understand where you're coming from, what you're going through and how to get you going again."

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