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Coffee Company Gives Ex-Cons a Lift Toward Law-Abiding Life

Coffee's restorative properties are celebrated daily, but a Washington state roaster is using the eye-opening beans to fuel a resurrection of a different kind: offering ex-convicts a path to a law-abiding life.

Underground Coffee, a subscription-based coffee service in Burlington, Washington, provides employment to ex-offenders after their release from jail or prison.

That doesn't just mean giving them jobs: The company also provides a support network to help them "shed the scars" of incarceration and works to integrate them into the communities that consume the coffee in the cafes where it is served.

Image: Chris Hoke, middle, with Underground Coffee employees Jesse Garcia, left, and Zach Joy
Chris Hoke, middle, with Underground Coffee employees Jesse Garcia, left, and Zach Joy during their first month of operation in 2007. Image: Underground Coffee, Terra Nueva

The company, an offshoot of an ecumenical Christian ministry in agricultural Skagit County, north of Seattle, compares its mission to the biblical story of Lazarus, who was "called out of the darkness" and restored to life by Jesus four days after his death, according to the Gospel of John.

"I like being there for the resurrection from the dark places," said Chris Hoke, who cofounded the coffee operation and oversees it for the Tierra Nueva (New Earth) ministry.

Underground Coffee was founded in 2007, and has employed 11 former offenders, according to Hoke, 34 who also ministers to mostly Latino gang members, both behind bars and on the streets. A number of other ex-prisoners have passed through as volunteers and have benefitted from supportive environment, he said.

He says the need for such conduits to help people transition from lives of crime to mainstream society is critical.

"The (coffee) bags tell a story about people coming out of the underground at a time when mass incarceration levels are disgusting," he said. "Millions of people are in jail and are in debt in a system where they cannot get out."

The coffee roasting and packaging operation has roots that run all the way from Washington to Honduras. Teirra Nueva founders Bob and Gracie Ekblad ventured to the Central American country in the early 1980s to teach and learn about sustainable farming, nutrition and preventative health and "to work and learn alongside poor campesinos."

In the course of that work, they got to know several local coffee plantation owners and often gathered together in the shade of a mango tree during work breaks for conversations that revolved around religion and the purpose of life.

After the Ekblads relocated to Washington in 1994, those connections eventually led to the creation of Underground Coffee.

Many Underground Coffee employees are and have been former gang members who met Hoke, known as the "gang pastor," during their incarceration.

Image: Kelly at Underground Coffee
Kelly, A recovering drug addict who will be celebrating 14 months of being clean next week, Kelly says that the support she has received through Underground Coffee made her strong Courtesy of Underground Coffee

Hoke said that while his message to the inmates is rooted in religion, he also emphasizes practical aspects to help them turn their lives around, such as the importance of finding steady employment.

That's often not easy for someone with a criminal record. A 2012 report by the King County, Washington, prosecutor's office noted that the state projects that between 30 and 50 percent of all inmates released in the state will be back behind bars within three years.

"People returning to the community after a period of incarceration need the same things everyone else does to succeed: housing, food, clothing, a job or an educational opportunity," it said in urging increased efforts by the state to break the cycle of recidivism.

Kelly Boyle, a current employee at Underground Coffee, says the support she has received from the company has been instrumental in helping her recover from the drug addiction that landed her in jail and cost her custody of her children.

"(It has been) literally holding me up when I feel I don't have the strength to keep pushing forward," said Boyle, said she has now been off drugs for 14 months. "I can actually see a future."

She said many of her friends with criminal records are not so fortunate.

"(They) can't get a job or a place to live, so what do you think they return to?" says Boyle. "Imagine if the world was a place of second chances? (I'm) pretty sure our crime and drug addiction would decrease quite a bit."

Hoke says he believes that Underground Coffee can be the flagship of a larger movement as more employers sign on.

He noted that the founder of a larger coffee roasting company, the Fidalgo Bay Coffee Roasters, learned about Underground Coffee's mission several years ago and formed a partnership to extend the hiring network.

"We want to do more than sell coffee. We want to make a difference, make the world a better place ... [and] this was an obvious way to start," said Darryl Miller, a vice president at Fidalgo Bay.

"It's difficult to be able to make a judgment and to be able to take someone who has had a life of crime and bring them into your company," he said. "We all know it's a problem and it's something we as a country want to do — give someone a second chance."

Hoke draws on his religious beliefs to describe the benefits of the program, calling coffee an "edible sacrament" that has the power to free people from addiction and debt and help break the cycle of incarceration.

"Stones need to be rolled away, societal barriers need to be cast away," he said. "... Lazarus can't be resurrected on his own."