Finding new life

Michael Wynne. Photo: Stephen Brashear Michael Wynne. Photo: Stephen Brashear

After hitting rock bottom himself, Michael Wynne helps other ex-cons overcome their pasts

In the fall of 2002, Michael Wynne was a successful attorney in the Vancouver area. He and his wife, Mary, had sent their five children to study at Gonzaga University. In his spare time, he enjoyed baking and developing his own cookie recipes.

But Wynne’s life took a dark turn one October night when his youngest daughter, Susie, a college sophomore, suffered a near-fatal fall that left her severely injured and legally blind.

“Of course, I was mad,” Wynne said. “I was mad at God.”

With his “poor coping skills,” he started drinking.

“I was a closet drinker,” he said. “At the end, I was drinking three or four bottles of wine a night by myself.”

Medical bills piled up, and Wynne started “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” He got caught, pleaded guilty to stealing from clients, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

In September of 2010, Michael Wynne boarded the chain bus to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.

But, said Erica Cohen Moore, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s director of discipleship, Wynne’s story goes to show that “you can screw up at any time — but redemption can come at any time.”

‘Doing God’s work’

Prison was rough on Wynne, who was 63 when he entered.

“I got sick and almost died,” he said. He spent about three months in the prison hospital before being transferred to Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen and then to Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock.

He’d never had a run-in with the law before, and some of the younger inmates gave him a hard time at first.

But rather than retreat into TV or card games, Wynne decided to spend his time in prison serving those around him. He realized he could use his professional skills and experience to help guys overcome some of the bureaucratic obstacles they were facing on the outside — obtaining necessary documents, preparing résumés, clearing up traffic tickets.

“A lot of guys in prison, they can’t read or write,” he said.

News travels fast in prison, and soon Wynne had a long list of “clients.” Deacon Jack Roscoe, who served as chaplain at Cedar Creek, remembers the first time he saw Wynne walk into the prison chapel.

“He was carrying around a big sheaf of papers and helping everybody, from an inmate trying to get a driver’s license in California, to this, to that, to the next thing,” he said. “I was very, very impressed with all the things he was doing there.”

Deacon Roscoe recruited Wynne to serve as a lector at Communion services, and began helping him rediscover his Catholic faith. Together they watched Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism video series, and Deacon Roscoe gave Wynne a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.

At the prison library, Wynne said, “I was grabbing everything I could on philosophy and religion … and I just started voraciously reading as much as I could, and then started reading the Bible.”

Deacon Roscoe arranged for a priest to visit the prison, and Wynne made his first confession in maybe 20 years. “That was a big release, like a big weight off my shoulders,” he said.

Wynne began to see the help he was giving his fellow inmates in light of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: “I was … in prison and you visited me. … Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

He realized, “If I can help some of these guys getting out, I’m kind of doing God’s work.”

welderRobert Russell, the production manager at Pacific Precast, Inc., got his job thanks to a recommendation from his former “celly” Michael Wynne. Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘Do not give me a fist bump’

Since being released in December of 2013, Wynne has been doing a lot of God’s work.

“He’s created this phenomenal ministry,” said Cohen Moore, the discipleship director, who first met Wynne at Cedar Creek.

A felony conviction can be a huge barrier to securing employment and housing. So Wynne often meets at coffee shops or McDonald’s with guys who have just been released. “If they haven’t checked their prison demeanor when they get out, I can tell right away,” he said. But if he feels confident vouching for them, he’ll use his connections and recommend them to an employer or landlord.

Wynne estimates that in the past four years he’s helped more than 100 men get jobs or places to live after being released from prison.

“I can’t change the past; I’m not proud of it,” Wynne said, but “I think God put me in this position to help these guys.”

Wynne has also written a 34-page “Re-entry Handbook for Washington Offenders,” which covers everything from how to get a birth certificate and a Social Security card, to dealing with unpaid traffic tickets and child support, to writing a résumé and nailing a job interview.

“I always tell these guys, ‘Do not give me a fist bump. If you give me a fist bump, that’s already 50 strikes against you.’”

Wynne’s goal is to help men turn their lives around and avoid slipping back into the situations that got them in trouble in the first place. According to the National Institute of Justice, a study of 400,000 prisoners in 30 states found that more than three-quarters had been rearrested within five years of their release.

“My philosophy is: If you can just help one guy, that’s a success,” Wynne said. “One guy less going back to prison and having a good job and being a taxpayer and taking care of their family — you know, it makes me feel good.”

“If we had 40 Mikes in this state,” Deacon Roscoe said, “the incarceration rate would go way down, there’s no doubt about it. He’s got so many success stories.”

Wynne succeeds because of the trust he inspires in employers and former prisoners, said Father Tom Belleque, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Vancouver, where Wynne serves as a lector.

“What gives him so much credibility is that he served his time and he understands from the inside, and I don’t think there’s any better minister than somebody who understands it personally,” Father Belleque said. “That’s part of the cross and resurrection of the Gospel — that we take the crosses in our lives and turn them into new life. And one of the best ways we can do that is to serve others.”

One of the men Wynne has served is his former “celly” at Cedar Creek, Robert Russell. When Russell was released in 2014, Wynne was there for him and recommended him for a job as a welder at Pacific Precast, Inc., an ornamental concrete company in Vancouver. Now Russell runs the business as the production manager.

“I don’t have very many people I’d call a true friend, and he’s one of them,” he said of Wynne.

“He’d give you the shirt off his back, he’d do anything he could for you,” Russell added. “He’s a blessing to anybody that is in his life.”

Northwest Catholic - April 2018

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.
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Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.