No Place Like Home
Unconia Al-Hajri hates her house. She doesn’t want to raise her son here. The screen on the front door is falling off the frame. There’s no doorknob on the back door. Her bathroom sink hangs off the wall, so she uses the bathtub to brush her teeth. There’s a hole in the side of her house where anyone can climb through. For now, it’s covered with a piece of wood.
But what makes her hate it even more is the drug house around the corner. Smoking a cigarette on her front porch, she watches as three men on bikes ride away from the house. Neighbors across the street pause to watch them. Everyone knows what they’re doing in that house.
Al-Hajri knows what they’re doing because she used to be one of them.
At 18, she was three years into a full-blown addiction to methamphetamine. Her story of addiction is like so many others. She lost her friends. She lost her family. She lied. She didn’t care about anything but getting more drugs. Those years are a blur now. She can barely remember the people whose couches she slept on or who sold her drugs.
She can’t even remember the name of the guy who was in the car with her the night she was arrested.
That night, she was at a house being watched by police. She pulled out of the driveway onto Wellesley. Windows down, music blaring. She and that guy weren’t going anywhere in particular. They were just out for a ride.
“I didn’t have any responsibility. I didn’t care what was going to happen to me next. I knew I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel without a license, and I pulled out of an active house,” she says. “I didn’t think about it because I was high.”
On top of driving without a license and driving under the influence, Al-Hajri was also arrested for possession of a gram of methamphetamine and a joint of marijuana. She spent the next 72 hours in the Spokane County Jail. And she was terrified.
“You have people screaming at night because they’re heroin addicts. It’s not a place for a little girl that age to be,” she says. “God, it felt like I was there for three years.”
But she got lucky. Instead of staying in jail, she was offered a deal: Because she was a first-time offender, she could go to Spokane County’s Drug Court for an intensive, 12-month-long program. If she completed it, she would walk away without the drug conviction on her record. She would not be a felon.
If getting arrested wasn’t enough to scare her, before she entered the program, she got another wake-up call: She was pregnant.
“That just stopped everything for me,” she says. “And I was so ridiculously sad because all that was in my mind was what did I do to this child? I was really scared to see him.”
Al-Hajri knew that she didn’t want her child to end up like the kids she had seen living in drug houses when she was an addict. So she committed to completing the drug program.
It wouldn’t be easy. Every day, Al-Hajri had to call in and find out if it was her day to take a urine test. If her number came up, she had to catch the bus and get to the testing facility on time. If she was a minute late, the doors would lock. And a no-show for a test was considered the same as it being positive for drugs.
“I’d be two minutes late and they’d stand in front of the door and lock it and say, ‘You’re not getting in,’” she says. She says she was on bed rest for her pregnancy but still had to go in and serve her time at Drug Court. Her house was inspected for drugs and alcohol. She completed community service. She sat in support groups.
After 12 months, she graduated. Over the past 15 years, only about 32 people a year have done the same.
Al-Hajri’s situation is unique because she hasn’t actually been convicted of a felony. But the charge — the fact that she was pulled over with drugs — is on her record. And it will stay there unless she gets it expunged, which is a lengthy and expensive process. In the meantime, if someone background-checks Al-Hajri — for a house or a job — her meth charge comes up.
So despite her hard work getting through the drug program, that charge has prevented her from living anywhere but here, next to the drug house. It’s the best place that Al-Hajri, now 25, can find for her and her young son. She’s applied for six new places to live in the last month. Landlords at some of the worst housing complexes have hung up on her when she tells them of her meth charge.
And that’s the thing that infuriates her: Her year of Drug Court ensured that she wasn’t a felon — but she’s being treated like one.
“To bring yourself back from the bottom is so flipping hard. It takes a lot,” she says. “Everyone is looking forward to this pot of gold, which is release with no prejudice.”
Breean Beggs, a private attorney in Spokane, says the way records are kept and readily accessible on the Internet are major issues for felons — and even for non-felons like Al-Hajri.
“The problem has been magnified exponentially by technology,” he says. “There hasn’t been a comprehensive reform.
“You can expunge [a felony] off your record and on the government database they’ll say you don’t have one,” Beggs says. “But the private [record companies] — they may not change it.”
Today, Al-Hajri has no driver’s license. Her boyfriend picks her up from school and drives her to drop off applications for new places to live. She goes to school full-time at Spokane Community College. She’s studying criminal justice — and she’s devoted to becoming a probation officer. She wants to help kids who are just like she was.
“Maybe I can help them from going this way because I’ve seen a lot and I’ve lost a lot,” she says.
But she says she needs to be given a chance first. And that starts with being able to raise her son in a safe environment.
“I’m telling the truth about everything, and they’re still looking at me like I’m lying,” she says. “It’s, like, when do you not have to pay for it?”
Her phone was turned off last week — she didn’t have the money to pay the bill after paying more than $200 for housing application fees. She pulled her son out of daycare after he came home with bruises all over his body. And she recently was fired from her grocery job after a dispute with her boss. The union she belongs to wants her to fight it — but Al-Hajri says she doesn’t have the energy.
“I’m just like, when do you have a chance to show who you are today? I typed letters to give out with every application explaining my whole life situation, which I don’t feel like I should have to do,” she says, “because I’ve put in my time.”
Jerry Sumner has the same routine every morning. He wakes up early, gets a cup of coffee and sits with the newspaper. He scans the classified ads for a job — any job that he can do without a driver’s license.
After a day of chores on the farm — feeding his baby cow by hand with a bottle, mending the fence where the baby piglets have gotten out — Sumner is covered in a thin layer of dust. He finds relief in work: chopping wood, maintaining the farm. The father of three is a quiet man, but he’s vocal about how his felony record has determined the course of his entire life.
At 17, Sumner made a mistake. Today, 19 years later, he even has a hard time calling it a mistake.
One night he hopped in a car, just to ride around with some friends — like any high school kid does. But he found out when they reached the Zip Trip in Hillyard that the car he was sitting in was, in fact, stolen. And Sumner, a Ferris High School football player, became a felon when he got inside.
Today, nearly 20 years later, he still maintains that he had no idea that the car was stolen. Regardless, he spent a few weeks in Twin Rivers Correctional Facility for taking a motor vehicle without the owner’s permission. And from the day he went to jail in 1991, the Legal Financial Obligations (known as LFOs) that he owed started compounding at an annual interest rate of 12 percent.
He now owes the state over $20,000. He’s never been able to catch up on his fines, he says. And they grew and grew until they were finally sent to collections.
“They give you a bunch of tickets, and how are you supposed to pay them when you’re a kid?” he says. “How’s a 16- or 17-year-old kid supposed to make that kind of money to make it happen?”
Sumner’s LFOs have swelled each of the 47 times he has been pulled over for driving without a license. Sumner says that he drove all those times because he had to: He had to get to work, buy groceries, take his children to school. He’s also been ticketed for riding a snowmobile and for using a riding lawnmower to mow his fence line.
Suellen Pritchard says that she sees people like Sumner come into the Center for Justice offices in downtown Spokane everyday. She says one of the biggest problems facing reformed felons is getting a driver’s license. She bets that about 75 percent of people coming out of the system don’t have a license — either because they never had one, or it was suspended due to unpaid fines or traffic offenses.
But a driver’s license, she says, is often the key to solving a lot of problems for a rehabilitated felon.
“You have someone in poverty looking at [a] ticket going, ‘I have $50 left over out of my check to buy diapers and formula, I’m going to have to let my insurance on my car go. We’ve gotta pay the rent and the electricity. Am I going to pay this fine or feed my kids?’” she says. “People shouldn’t have to make that choice.”