The Oregonian: Oregon drug addict's journey through prison ends in triumph, scholarship at PSU
Author: Bryan Denson, The Oregonian
Posted: July 10, 2014

Read the original story here in The Oregonian

When Ailene Farkac appeared in a Eugene criminal court in 2007 for dealing drugs, she figured she'd get probation and beat it home in time to pick up her six-year-old son from school.

She figured wrong.

The judge sentenced Farkac to three years in prison, a comeuppance for a drug-addicted mom who had already missed pieces of her kids' lives by slinging dope.

She would rise in triumph at Portland State University's graduation this spring, with high honors, a couple of degrees, and a good chance of admission to a doctoral program in sociology or public policy.

Her ascent spotlights the good that can be accomplished behind bars. She's focused on research that will help prisoners re-enter society. But to comprehend the pain and determination that pushed Farkac to succeed, you have to reach into the darkest corners of her journey.

And still you may wonder how the 45-year-old mother of three pulled it off.

Farkac started using drugs at 13, the year after her parents – devout Orthodox Jews in Long Island, N.Y. – did the unthinkable. In a faith built around marriage and family, they split up.

"I was the only kid in my yeshiva whose parents were divorced," she says.

By her freshman year at Plainview High School, she was dealing pot. She graduated in 1986 with poor grades. But she was smart, gabby and persistent. She took a few community college classes, then talked her way into the State University of New York at New Paltz.

But she dropped out to follow the Grateful Dead's concert tours, following the band's well-worn trail to Eugene. There, in the cradle of Oregon's counterculture, she would take a job making natural fruit juice, meet the man she would marry, and serve as bookkeeper in a bong shop. Farkac gave birth to two daughters – Mollie and Anna – in the early 1990s.

Ailene Farkac took a long, strange trip — through drug addiction, motherhood and prison — to earn a pair of degrees at Portland State University. She will soon graduate from the prestigious Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, and has her sights set on a Phd.

She and her husband, David Farkac, ran a successful tie-dye business called Living to Dye. But when they moved to the tiny Willamette Valley hamlet of Pedee, she felt the walls closing in.

A junkie friend from New York came to visit in 1995, busting her out of Pedee and teaching her how to score heroin on the streets of Eugene. Farkac put her swagger and business skills to use, serving as middleman between heroin suppliers and street dealers.

She worked the drug trade like a hungry entrepreneur, teaching Hebrew numbers to a couple of fellow junkies so they could talk in code as they negotiated the price of heroin with Spanish speaking suppliers. She also broke the dealer's cardinal rule.

"I got myself addicted," she says. "I can't deny I was breaking the law. But I was breaking it for drugs."

In 1999, she wrote herself a check for $200 from the bong shop where she worked. Feeling guilty, she confessed. Eugene police popped her for misdemeanor forgery, and she got 19 days on a road crew.

She fell into familiar patterns of addiction. She cleaned up, relapsed and cleaned up again and again, tethered to the junkie's train of misery. Evictions. Restraining orders. Divorce. Creditors. Bankruptcy.

Farkac's son, Dylan, was born in 2001. She moved to New York seeking a fresh start, and her boy soon came to live with her. Mollie and Anna, then in grade school, stayed with their dad in Oregon.

Farkac took a job with a Wall Street nonprofit that helped the poor. But she returned to drugs, taking delivery of heroin in the lobby and shooting up in the bathroom.

A dope dealer in Eugene lured her back to Oregon in January 2006, telling her his business was crumbling without her. She sold up to six ounces of heroin a day at $1,200 an ounce, spoiling her kids with the proceeds. She took them on trips, sprung for dinners and bought them clothes, jewelry, cell phones and electronics.

"It was in lieu of spending time with them," she says.

Her kids knew she was using drugs, but had no clue she was dealing. In April 2006, police busted through the door of her apartment on Eugene's High Street armed with a search warrant. Mercifully, the kids weren't with her. She was indicted the following year, and a judge sentenced her to three years on probation.

"It was a gift," she recalls.

On the way to visit her probation officer for the first time, she stopped to see her dope dealer.

A team of Eugene police detectives arrested her in November 2006 for commercial delivery of heroin and possession of cocaine. She bailed out again. But the following February, a judge sentenced her to three years in prison.

Farkac, confident she would get probation, had made no preparations to tell her kids. Anna was in a middle school history class when her big sister Mollie texted her with the news. The kids would next see their mom in the visiting room of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

Coffee Creek officials kept Farkac five months before sending her to a six-month boot camp in Coos County to help her win early release. But she loathed the program. She says the officers tried to crush her spirit and made rude comments about her Jewish faith.

She washed out after five months, returning to Coffee Creek.

Mollie was devastated. She was a high school sophomore in Dallas and her mom's absence was punishing. Farkac missed her choir and band performances, her swim meets, her junior prom.

"I didn't have a mom," she recalls.

Mollie and Anna joined the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program to spend weekend visits with their mom. They ate prison food for lunch, making crafts and small talk. While Mollie remained hurt and aloof, Anna quickly forgave her mom.

"I saw her more in prison than I had in the last two years," Anna recalls. "I loved it."

Dylan, in grade school, found his world turned upside down. His dad was using drugs and he had to navigate metal detectors every couple of weeks just to sort things out with his mom.

"She was one of the few people I could talk to," he says.

At Coffee Creek, Farkac tutored several young women trying to earn GEDs, a reminder that she still had much to teach her own kids. But she had to repair the tattered bonds between them.

Farkac got out of prison the week before Thanksgiving 2008 and stowed a cardboard box of clothes and photos in a Eugene halfway house. She took a job at Wendy's, her weekly pay less than what she could earn in a few hours selling heroin.

When Dylan's father went to jail, he moved in with his mom.

Farkac enrolled at Lane Community College, where Anna later joined her.

Her mom put her head in the books and didn't look up. She eventually earned straight As, which caught the eye of Lane's honors program. She enrolled at Portland State, which admitted her to its honors program.

Farkac drilled deep into her studies, making PSU's president's list. In September 2013, she was accepted into the prestigious Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which helps talented and ambitious undergrads pursue deep academic research and gun for doctorates.

Farkac's children were shocked by their mom's changes. She became a driven researcher, burning up days and nights in PSU's library to prove herself to her kids, and to herself.

"I feel like she just grew up," Anna says.

On June 15, Farkac crossed the stage at PSU wearing a gold summa cum laude cord. She earned a 3.96 grade point average, a pair of degrees – Social Science and Black Studies – and was initiated into the Phi Kappa Phi Honors Society. Her family applauded wildly.

"It was so exciting," Anna says. "I cried."

Farkac hopes to apply for doctoral programs this fall. She's now finishing her McNair research project, an examination of the federal Second Chance Act, signed into law in 2008 to help prisoners return to society and stay there.

It's a subject Farkac knows, from inside and out.

-- Bryan Denson