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TACE celebrates 11 years at Coffee Creek

Rotary program connects inmate mothers with their children

by: JOSH KULLA - The last moments before you say goodbye are always the hardest. A Coffee Creek inmate embraces her daughter one final time before heading back to the medium-security wing in Oregons only womens prison. Time passes slowly when you’re in prison.

That’s partly why birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones grow significantly in importance for inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

Among the most highly anticipated dates on the inmate calendar each year are the two Through a Child’s Eyes events. Held each winter and summer, TACE, as it is known, is unique in the American corrections system — it allows Coffee Creek’s female inmates access and contact with their children.

“That is one thing you really miss, is sitting down and talking around the table,” inmate Melissa Smith said at the TACE event held July 13 and 14 in the medium security wing at Coffee Creek.

Now in its 11th year, Through a Child’s Eyes is sponsored by the Wilsonville Rotary Club, whose members volunteer to serve food and drinks, pass out snow cones to children and host a variety of game booths and other entertainment. by: JOSH KULLA - Coffee Creek inmate Nicole Carey, right, enjoys TACE with her 6-year-old daughter, Victoria, left, and her 5-year-old son, Soren, front, who was adopted at 14 months by a couple from Albany.

“This morning I told them, that without all the volunteers, we couldn’t put this on,” said Coffee Creek Superintendent Heidi Steward. “When you look at all the people who are involved, there’s no way we could do it. And it’s great for the kids to have a normal day with their mothers.”

The summer event, in particular, has the feel of a carnival to it, despite the razor wire, closed-circuit television cameras and other obvious trappings of a modern prison.

Looking around, it was easy to overlook the standard issue inmate attire as kids swarmed over their mothers the same way they do anywhere.

“I’m grateful to have the experience of doing this event,” said inmate Nicole Carey, who was sent to Coffee Creek in December 2010 on charges of first-degree theft, identity theft, delivery of methamphetamine and being a felon in possession of a firearm. “I’m lucky here; you never think about going to prison and having cotton candy.”

Carey is eligible for release in January. And having served a previous stretch at Coffee Creek between 2007 and 2010, she’s more determined this time around to reach for any opportunities that come her way.

That includes TACE. But it also includes her participation in a family preservation project offered by the Department of Corrections that allows inmates giving birth while in prison to adopt their children out and then stay in touch as they grow older. by: JOSH KULLA - One-year-old Ahonie Rocha-Menjivar enjoys some table time with her mother, Coffee Creek inmate Dez Rocha, on July 14 during Through a Childs Eyes.

That’s how Carey came to be sitting around an umbrella-covered table that weekend with her 6-year-old daughter, Victoria, and her 5-year-old son, Soren, who was born in 2008 while Carey was incarcerated. On hand as well were Soren’s adoptive parents, Jim and Jen O’Connell of Albany.

Carey gave up custody of Soren at birth. The boy was adopted by the O’Connells when he just was 14 months old, Carey said.

TACE is one of the only times the entire family, such as it is, can get together in the same place.

“Compared to a normal visit,” Jim O’Connell said, “where it’s a sterile room, here you’re outside and it makes it easier to interact with the kids.”

Carey said the experience still is somewhat bittersweet, especially when it’s time for the kids to head back out through the security gates.

“I wish we could be out going to amusement parks, you know?” she said. “It’s a really great experience here, but at the same time it sucks.”

Smith would definitely know about missing out on things other people take for granted. Convicted in Marion County of manslaughter in 2004, the 32-year-old has spent nearly the past decade in prison. This year marks the 10th time she has taken part in a TACE event. by: JOSH KULLA - A mother and son get in one last hug at the end of this years summer event, held July 13 at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

The earliest Smith can be considered for release is February. She is planning on this being the final time she takes part in TACE. From that first event, which included a diaper bag for her twins, Nicholas and Evan, now 11 years old, to the present day, much has changed.

But the motivation to attend classes and keep a clean disciplinary sheet, both of which are mandatory to attend TACE, never wavered.

“It’s kind of the same, it’s exciting for sure, but it’s more exciting this year knowing it’s the last one,” said Smith, who dreams of one day opening her own hair salon. “For me it’s great, it’s like let’s get on with it, let’s get the time over with. But I’m grateful for all these 10 years to be able to take part in it.”

Big yellow toothpicks

Given the furore stirred up by the state’s decision to build Coffee Creek in Wilsonville, the success of TACE is even more surprising.

In 2001, prison opponents drew national attention by erecting four surplus school buses in the front yard of activist Larry Eaton. Buried nose down with their back wheels in the air, the spectacle provided a daily reminder to residents and press alike of the resistance to the project.

“Pretty soon, there’ll be nothing but big yellow toothpicks poking out of the ground all around here,” Eaton told an Associated Press reporter. “This is the only way I can show how bad I hate my government.”by: JOSH KULLA - Free books are just one of the attractions for kids at each Through a Childs Eyes event at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

“We did everything we could to blow their minds,” Wilsonville Rotarian and TACE co-founder John Ludlow said at the 10th anniversary of Coffee Creek’s 2002 opening.

Now the chairman of the Clackamas County Commission, Ludlow first started working with other local residents as far back as 1981 to stop the state from building a new prison in Wilsonville. He recalled human chains linked arm-in-arm, effigies of state officials hanged in protest and other protests held over the years, none of which prevented Coffee Creek from opening.

“We pushed them and shoved them and begged them and pleaded them,” he said. “And we ended up with this prison.”

Thus it was a bit ironic when Ludlow was asked by fellow Rotarians in December 2002 to dress as Santa Claus for what was planned as a one-time Christmas event for Coffee Creek inmates. He agreed, however, and the event proved to be a bigger hit than expected.

“I felt so moved by the darn experience,” Ludlow said, “that we wrote the thing up and it stuck.”

Ludlow went on to be named the Department of Corrections 2003 Volunteer of the Year. He was given the award a second time in 2012.

“It was so impactful to see those mothers with all their children,” Ludlow said. “There is nothing like that in this nation that goes on.”

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