May 2020 | Originally published on Post-Prison Education Program
Attorney John R. (Jack) Connelly believes in fighting for the individual above all. In being a voice for the voiceless. He’s consistently been named one of the top lawyers in Washington State, where he’s practiced for 28 years, always for the plaintiff. At Connelly Law where he currently practices, he has taken on civil rights, wrongful death, governmental liability cases and more that have led to justice and second chance for many.
Around 1993, Connelly got involved in the OK Boys Ranch case, a group home in Olympia where the state sent boys who had been emotionally or physically abused, for treatment. But the ranch was a place of routine physical and sexual violence and abuse. After nearly 20 years, State regulators, the Ranch’s board of directors, the state attorney general, DSHS and many others, consistently ignored incidents which should have resulted in revocation of the home’s operating license. This work would redefine the direction of his career.
“It was a place where newcomers were ‘initiated’ with group beatings; where punishment included ‘open season,’ a sanctioned invitation for other kids to pummel an offending child; where the assistant director thought it was ‘fun’ for the boys to scramble for cigarettes tossed from an upstairs window; where, after all that, a child so young he needed help to make a phone call could run away and beg – unsuccessfully – to be taken anywhere but back to the O.K. Boys Ranch.” (Source: The Seattle Times)
The boys who lived through OK Boys Ranch were anywhere between the ages of 11 and 17 years old. It stayed open for 23 years from 1971 to 1994, meaning those boys could be anywhere from 37 to 66 now. Some of them found Jack Connelly and his firm, some of them ended up in prison. It’s impossible to track the whereabouts of all the estimated 200 to 300 boys who had gone through the OK Boys Ranch system. Around 75 of those, Connelly’s firm represented.
“It makes me teary eyed,” Connelly said. “I still hear from a lot of them and they’re in varying degrees of success in their journeys.”
The first settlement before Connelly joined the OK Boys Ranch case was around $22,000. The first settlement reached for 10 boys after Connelly joined the case, was around $5 million. By 2018, he and his firm had reached $77 million in settlements for the young boys (now men) who went through that system. Connelly worked on these cases for 13 years, until one of his fellow attorneys took over, and although they’ve asked the state to stop sending them cases after nearly 27 years, they still get new referrals and calls.
We met to talk about his involvement in this case and how he has seen anger, trauma and abuse of power manifest itself in the kids who went through this system. We talked about what we need more of in society, what has changed between the first abuse case he took and now, and the importance of creating networks of support for his clients.
Can you start off by telling me about the cases your firm takes and that you yourself take?
I started out my practice back in 1981 and I found that the cases I liked working on were cases where I was representing people. Where someone needs a voice and you could stand up and be that voice for somebody who’s been victimized. We do a lot of abuse cases. We’ve done a number of these prison death cases. And we’ve done a number of cases with a number of people that are in prison who are injured.
I started working on abuse cases around 1991, involving Al Williams, a high school coach up in Redmond who had abused a number of kids. It was one of the first abuse cases in the state of Washington. I don’t think people understood the ramifications of being sexually abused as a child. When he was caught and sentenced, he was only given five years. I think at that time, people didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but that case settled for $2.4 million and people were surprised it had settled at that level. Then around 1993 I was asked to step in and work with attorneys involved in the “OK Boys Ranch” case in Olympia. We got involved and the abuse there was horrible and we found out the state was aware of what was going on, but wasn’t doing anything about it.
I think people are much more attuned to it now. They’re much more understanding of the fact that it’s wrong, that the trauma is longstanding. There’s a lot of longterm effects of sexual abuse, but the thing that’s strongest is kids who are abused by a person that’s in a position of trust. That causes a tremendous amount of damage. A child grows up and loses the ability to trust. It affects his sexual interactions. It affects self esteem, self worth, self image.
And a lot of times, they couldn’t even understand what had happened. They would act out, they would have problems, they’d be angry, frustrated. And it really wasn’t till they’re around age 25, sometimes even 40 or 50 years old, before they realized what had happened. And it really does have a lifelong impact. They’d be angry about their upbringing. They’d be angry about the abuse. And a lot of times that frustration and anger would come out and they’d do something that would wind up putting them in prison.
“And one of the sad things I noted is there are certain kids, and sometimes it’s subconscious, who would prefer to be in prison because you’ve got three meals a day, everything is regulated. You’re institutionalized.“
I have had kids that would come out and steal a car and immediately plead guilty so they could get back into prison.
What was the feeling for the men whose cases had been settled? Was there a sense of relief that their story was believed, or was there any sense of stress?
It’s honestly different from relief. It’s vindication. It’s “I was believed. What happened to me was wrong and society recognized that it was wrong.” The money’s important because in some ways it’s a measure that what happened was very wrong, but the kids all dealt with it differently. We set up annuities for many of them and it will take care of them through their life. And then we had a number of kids whose fathers suddenly resurfaced and wanted to help them set up a business. One kid’s dad, who’d never been around, wanted him to help set up a Christmas tree business in Arizona for $400,000, and we couldn’t stop him, so he lost all that money.
We set up a situation where with a third of the kids, we really helped them turn around their lives. About a third of them are kind of always working to turn their life around and about a third of them are trying but keep winding up in the prison system or in mental health institutions.
I’m actually dwelling more on the bad, but there’s also good stories where kids were able to recognize what had happened and use the money to set up a new life and get married, have kids, and, and do a little bit better. I would say all of them are affected by the abuse for the rest of their lives. But it’s like any of us, we’re all working to be better with our lives and so forth.
Are men who lived through OK Boys Ranch constantly coming out of the woodwork?
They keep coming. We told the state about 10 years ago, that was our last case. That one resolved and then another case came in and we told him it was our last case. But we just have people that will call up because they ran into one of the kids in prison and the kid would tell them to call us. So they’re still out there.
Is it hard to take on those similar cases of abuse throughout the state? To recognize larger institutions aren’t handling their jobs responsibly?
It’s like you’re dancing with the devil. There’s a point where it’s hard to keep doing them because of the fact that you see how they tear down a human being and hurt them for life.
So it falls on larger agencies or institutions to have greater diligence? What is the defense by those that simply aren’t doing their job?
Absolutely. I mean we take a lot of the cases against the Department of Social and Health Services and when you have a case against a DSHS, the basis for the case is that the DSHS knew about it and didn’t do anything about it. It’s always amazing when you look at their records and you find out they were aware of things, but they didn’t really investigate. They didn’t really step forward to help kids. And that’s the agency that we’ve set up as the group to do that job.
We have taken on the argument from the DSHS that “The case worker has so many cases they don’t have time to look at each one.” But I have a very healthy skepticism because we’re always finding that many of these case workers’ caseloads aren’t that big. There’s no reason that they couldn’t have done the investigation that was warranted. And we find that with the DOC cases too. We actually took on a few cases where we looked at their actual caseload and if they were doing their jobs. They weren’t.
Do you get referrals from past clients who are inside prisons?
It can be hard to take cases from inside the prisons. Where I feel bad is the medical treatment inside prisons is really bad, but medical malpractice cases are really expensive and of course you can’t ask a prisoner to pay for those. You still have juries where if someone has committed a horrible crime, they kind of hold it against them.
We took one for a prisoner who started dying in prison after being diagnosed with Hepatitis and his roommate kept telling them he urgently needs help, but they wouldn’t do anything for him. Eventually he died and we settled that one for a million dollars. As we were going in there, the state was telling us that no prison death case had ever been over $200,000. They said it should be a smaller settlement because it’s a prison death.
We’re getting an amazing number of police beating people up, where they’ll have a small infraction and the police just go crazy. We get a lot of police shooting cases, where I think it could be dessecalated but people are much quicker to shoot nowadays. I don’t know what’s going on with the police but there just seems to be such anger.
As a society, in your opinion, what do we need to be offering more of?
I don’t want to set up a system where you have victims running around saying “take care of me,” and I always emphasize that in the courtroom and to the people I represent. You don’t want people to be permanent victims, you want them to work to overcome the difficulties they’ve had in life.
I really think we need more counseling. Right now we’re looking at a time where mental health counseling and treatment is needed. Because of the homeless situation in Seattle and around the state we really need a system that is set up to counsel, treat and house people that are homeless and mentally ill. I think the statement that “a society is judged by how they take care of their least fortunate” is applicable. We need to figure it out. We’re looking in Pierce County at this tax about whether we pass mental health treatment (and it’s pretty low) and it hasn’t passed yet. We need it.
What is the Backstories series?
As an organization, we’ve learned the faces and stories of current and former prisoners are what most often leads people to understand how complex each individual in Washington State’s jails and prison system is. Prisoners are not one definable group. They are not the actions they committed, rather their lives are complex mixes of a larger history of abject poverty, addiction, mental illness, comorbidity, misunderstanding, and a large prison system that pushes them further into despair and recidivism. We plan to spend considerable time interviewing people who bring to light the impacts of this system on individuals and their families. Defense attorneys, advocates, filmmakers, educators and our graduates and students themselves. These are the stories and perspectives that are buried, and these are the backstories we plan to spotlight.