After 17 Years in Prison, Success in Life

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Nancy Joseph 04/28/2015 April 2015 Perspectives

Jeff Coats wanted a car. His plan to get one involved two accomplices, an unsuspecting victim, and rolls of duct tape to bind and gag the victim in his own car trunk. After the ill-conceived plan unraveled and the victim managed to escape, Coats was sentenced to 20 years in prison for robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder.

He was 14 years old.

Coats served 17 years at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe. Since his release, he has become a successful real estate agent in Seattle. His story is the subject of a thought-provoking radio documentary produced by UW Professor Katherine Beckett and a team of UW students and alumni, in partnership with radio journalists from the University of British Columbia (UBC). The 40-minute documentary, which aired on UBC’s Cited podcast and UW’s KUOW Radio, is now available online.

Beckett came up with the idea for the documentary after attending a meeting of the Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO), a group of inmates at WSR interested in prison reform. The men commented that the media tends to report on inmates who get out, mess up, and return to prison. “They asked, ‘Why aren’t the success stories being told?’” recalls Beckett, professor of sociology and law, societies, and justice. “It’s a heartfelt issue for them because it reinforces the idea that people can’t change. And they know that people can and do change and mature.”

Beckett decided to tell some of those success stories herself. She enlisted the help of UW students with an interest in prison reform, all of whom had recently taken a Law, Societies and Justice (LSJ) course held at WSR, with inmates as their classmates. “The class had just ended and a lot of the students were really motivated to keep working on something related,” says Beckett.

It’s a heartfelt issue for them because it reinforces the idea that people can’t change. And they know that people can and do change and mature.

CLO members provided the UW team with the names of nearly two dozen former inmates they had stayed in touch with, now leading successful lives on the outside. So far the team has interviewed three of the men. “All of them have been totally on board with the concept,” says Beckett. “They made a commitment in their lives to be honest and open about their past, so getting them to talk was not a problem at all.”

Bryce Ellis, a communication and LSJ major, participated in several of the interviews. He was deeply affected by the men’s stories. “Having the chance to confront the painful realities of our criminal justice system, the impact this system has on people, and how they work to overcome and change their lives has meant a lot to me and given me a deep belief in humans’ capacity for positive growth and change,” says Ellis.

Though the interviews were compelling, the prospect of shaping them into broadcast-quality pieces was daunting—until Beckett mentioned the project to radio journalists Sam Fenn and Gordon Katic from UBC, who were intrigued and offered to help. “They had connections and equipment and they’re really good at what they do,” says Beckett. “It was a great collaboration.”

Between interview sessions, Katherine Beckett pauses for a group photo with (from left) Gordon Katic, Jeff Coats, and Sam Fenn.

Fenn and Katic, determined to present both sides of the story, contacted the victim of Jeff Coats’s bungled crime, Tacoma businessman David Grenier. Grenier was initially resistant to being interviewed for the radio documentary but was curious about Coats. The team became a conduit between the two men, enabling them to address questions they had had for years. Eventually Grenier agreed to an interview. “It was very emotional for him,” says Beckett. “He was very impacted by what happened, and his family was too, and we felt it was important to not gloss over that.”

The resulting documentary tells the riveting story of the crime and its aftermath from the perspective of both Coats and Grenier. It also shares Coats’s devastating backstory, including severe abuse by his stepfather that led to his placement in foster care at age 11. Because many foster care placements are intended as short-term solutions, Coats was shuffled to 62 foster homes in three years.

Coats’s story raises important questions about the sentencing of juveniles as adults—a common practice in the United States but not other countries—and the potential for inmates to turn their lives around. In prison, Coats was in frequent fights with other inmates until he made a conscious decision to change. He became a voracious reader of books about real estate, which led to a job after his release. His employer, also featured in the podcast, recalls being impressed during the job interview by Coats’s passion for real estate and his stunning honesty about his criminal past.

“Jeff’s story is inspiring,” says Beckett. “He turned it around. His may not seem like a typical story, but I’ve met people like him all over the place, and they all have stories like this.”

Beckett hopes to tell more of those stories in the future. She believes they would make a compelling radio series—if she can find the necessary funding.

“I really want to keep doing this,” she says. “I think it’s important. We have this aging population of people in prison who are not a threat to public safety, many of whom have done some amazing work to really turn their lives around. They never have an opportunity to tell that story of change. We’d like to make that happen.”

The radio documentary about Jeff Coats, titled “Superpredators Revisited,” is available on UBC’s Cited podcast. The documentary is part of the UW’s Rethinking Punishment project, a partnership between the Center for Human Rights and the Law, Societies, and Justice program. The project aims to reframe issues around human rights, violence, and incarceration.

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