Overcoming incredible odds to help others

Inside the walls at Deer Ridge Correctional Institute in Madras, OSEA members like Angie Ptomey help provide the skills needed to ensure inmates leaving the prison can survive and thrive on the outside.

In her position at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), Ptomey teaches GED classes to inmates at the medium- and minimum-security mens prison. Her work has gained attention from the Redmond Rotary Club, which recently named Ptomey a Paul Harris Fellow, a recognition received by luminaries like former President Jimmy Carter for their outstanding contributions to their communities.

“Ninety-seven percent of inmates currently incarcerated will be released into our communities,” Ptomey told Rotarians in a recent speech. “They will be your neighbors. If no one gives them a chance to be something (other than inmates), what will they return to?”

In addition to the GED curriculum, prison programs that teach inmates welding and basic life skills are an inherent acknowledgement that many inmates come from harsh backgrounds that left them ill-prepared for a fast-changing world. Ptomey, once known by prison number 13645081, knows this all too well.

Born to abusive, mentally-ill parents struggling with drug addiction, her earliest memories are of not having lunch like her schoolmates did, sleeping in the car to be first in line for free dental services, and horrid abuse. Instead of nurturing and preparing Ptomey and her brothers for adult life, her father taught them how to abuse drugs and commit crimes when she was barely a teenager. 

Angie Ptomey, president of Central Oregon Community College-ABS Chapter 700, was honored as a Paul Harris Fellow by the Redmond Rotary Club for her work rehabilitating inmates at Deer Ridge Correctional Institute.

This led her down a path of meth addiction, theft and despair. In 2001 — 27 felony convictions later — she was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Sitting in the county jail waiting to be transported to prison, she challenged herself to make a real life change.

“I vowed to take advantage of every opportunity, and not let the next 30 months go wasted,” Ptomey said.

She got a job in the prison kitchen, began attending religious services and was active in Narcotics Anonymous. Having no significant computer experience, she learned keyboarding and Microsoft Office — common skills Ptomey said were critical to succeeding in college once she was released.

Loneliness and worry also filled her days behind bars. Among those worries was wondering if anyone would actually hire her once she was released, despite actively striving to better herself.

“Prison saved my life, but I still remember what it feels like,” she said. “I tell my students that their prison experience will never go away — that they won’t forget — but prison can be a defining moment in their lives. It was for me.”

Yet she called getting released her true test. Her history precluded her from many jobs, even work that the typical teenager can get. This didn’t deter her from enrolling at COCC two weeks after her release.

While attending school, Ptomey embraced the steadiness that came with church and 12-step meetings. She met the man who would become her husband and earned a bachelor’s degree in human development and family science from Oregon State University and a master’s degree in education from Capella University. She immersed herself in “learning and helping others,” eventually getting hired at COCC and becoming president of OSEA COCC-ABS Chapter 700.

“By working hard, getting my education and surrounding myself with people who are healthy, I now work in a position where I can give hope to people who feel there is no hope,” she said.

For those wanting to change themselves in such a restrictive and humbling environment, hope is a valuable commodity. Many of Ptomey’s students likely have never really felt hope. According to her, more than half of them have some kind of mental health concern or learning or developmental disability that adds extra layers of difficulty on top of the distress of poverty, of family dysfunction, of substance abuse and shame.

To Rotarians in Redmond, she offered this comparatively modest challenge: Just think of the worst thing you’ve ever done.

“I want you to imagine that because of this choice you lost everything — your job, your friends, your spouse and even your children. You lost everything that is important to you. Everything you live for. Imagine how lonely that would make you. Imagine the feeling of hopelessness and despair.”

To the inmates she helps, Ptomey serves as walking, breathing and thriving proof there is life beyond prison walls. Yet when she tells the average citizen where she works, this realization is not the typical reaction.

“I usually get funny looks,” Ptomey said. “Some people think it would be scary. Some people think I’m crazy. But I think most people are glad it’s me and not them.”

The reality?

“The inmates that I work with are typically more grateful, more dedicated and more respectful than many I have experienced in classes outside of prison,” said Ptomey, who has also sung with the DRCI all-inmate band The Unusual Suspects.

Living through the struggles and redemption that mark Ptomey’s life provides valuable perspective. Recently, she saw that some inmates who were unable to pass tough new GED requirements still needed something to show potential employers. In response she designed a class, led by inmate tutors, that teaches basic math skills suitable for working in construction.

“I wanted these students to feel like they accomplished something while in prison and also obtain skills to help them find work on the outside,” Ptomey said. Those who complete the class get a non-credit certificate they can show potential employers.

“Many people don’t believe in second chances,” she added. “I’ve been rejected more times than I can count, but I did not give up. My students and tutors know I have had some similar struggles in life and I made it through. I think this gives them hope for their own future.”

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