Tigard's Max Williams goes from bettering the lives of people in prison to trying to keep young people from ending up there
by: Jaime Valdez Max Williams will soon be starting a new career as the head of the state’s largest foundation, the Oregon Community Foundation.

After nearly a decade working in Oregon's penal system, Max Williams is a free man.

The longtime Tigard resident has served as the head of the state's Department of Corrections since 2004, but left last month to take on a new challenge, running one of the largest foundations in the country, the Oregon Community Foundation.

'I'm feeling like my spine is a little straighter now, and I don't wake up in the morning quite so overwhelmed with responsibility,' Williams laughed, sitting at a Tigard coffee shop Tuesday morning. 'Eight years is a long time to be a corrections director.'

Williams starts at the foundation Feb. 1 and said running the state's largest philanthropic organization will allow him to focus on a variety of issues and give him the chance to help people before they turn to a life of crime.

'The thing about corrections is you are working often on the back end of problems,' he said. 'You are seeing the aftermath of poverty and racial disparity and gaps in education, failures in communities where there is a lot of dysfunction and family dysfunction…One of great beauties of the foundation, particularly in the areas of early childhood education and children and families, is that it allows you get in front of it and really address it on the ground level.'

OCF supports about 2,000 nonprofits across the state through grants and scholarships with about $1.2 billion in assets each year, Williams said.

'You want me to do what?'

Williams was handpicked by then-Governor Ted Kulongoski to head the prison department in 2004.

'That was never in the game plan,' Williams said. At the time, Williams was representing Tigard in his third term in the Oregon Legislature.

'It was truly a bolt out of the blue,' he said. 'I said 'You want me to do what? I don't know anything about running prisons.''

The fresh-faced director soon found his footing. Williams is credited with reorganizing the way prisons deal with the mentally ill - opening a mental hospital inside the Oregon State Penitentiary for seriously ill inmates - and working to give better job training, drug treatment and education to inmates.

'The system accounts for 14,000 people who are all different and distinct and have different needs,' Williams said.

'People think of prison as sort of this factory, like it's mass production. Really, it's mass specialization. You really try to match this individual inmate's needs on education, work skills, mental health issues, their health issues, their underlying criminal risk factors that drove the criminality in the first place, and develop an intervention and strategies to make it less likely they will commit a crime when they are released. It really is a complex notion to do it right.'

A great mission

Williams has spent the past eight years trying to balance two schools of thought: to hold criminals accountable for their actions and work to keep them from ending up back in prison.

'I knew that I needed to go someplace that had a mission just as important as that,' Williams said. 'And the (Oregon) Community Foundation's mission is improving the lives of all Oregonians and expanding philanthropy throughout the state. I mean, that's a great mission.'

Williams said he was looking forward to spending more time in Tigard. In the past, Williams was involved with the Good Neighbor Center, Community Partners for Affordable Housing and other groups before taking the job in Salem and he said he hopes to get more involved.

'This will allow me to be more engaged than I have been in the last eight years,' Williams said. 'I'm looking forward to that. It's hard to get to Chamber breakfasts or Rotary meetings in the middle of the day when you are working an hour away.'

Although his commute from Tigard to Salem put him in the car for close to two hours every day, Williams said his family never considered leaving the house they have owned near Barrows Road for nearly 20 years.

'We love Tigard. We love our neighborhood and the people we've gotten to be friends with. We loved raising our kids here and going to school here … (leaving Tigard) has never been considered,' he said.

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