Matt Driscoll

Having 30 felonies on your record makes life hard, but this UWT grad isn’t giving up

Man turns life around, now helps others walking out of prison

Omari Amili went from serving time on 30 felony charges to earning a master's degree from UWT. Now he's working to help others face the challenges of life after incarceration.
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Omari Amili went from serving time on 30 felony charges to earning a master's degree from UWT. Now he's working to help others face the challenges of life after incarceration.

It was a simple, alluring scheme.

Especially to a kid like Omari Amili.

Buy an ATM card from someone. Deposit a stolen check. Extract the money.

Repeat.

For roughly three years at about the time he became an adult in the eyes of the law, that was Amili’s hustle.

It netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars, 30 felony charges and, eventually, a 36-month prison sentence.

Ever since, Amili has been trying to redeem himself and carve a path on the straight and narrow.

It hasn’t been easy.

Things most people take for granted, like getting a job or volunteering at their kids’ schools, have proven difficult for Amili, now 32. Sometime it’s all felt a little overwhelming, he said.

For those with criminal records, the challenges Amili has faced are surely familiar ones.

But his story isn’t simply one of hardships and regret. There’s a tale of self-made reclamation, too. A full telling offers both proof of the struggle those released from prison face when re-entering society and the potential power of perseverance and education.

It is hard. (Amili’s) challenge, his struggle, is common to many people coming back to the community.

Cary Retlin, interim executive director of the Statewide Reentry Council

“It is hard,” said Cary Retlin, interim executive director of the Statewide Reentry Council, which, among other things, focuses on improving outcomes for those being released from prison. “(Amili’s) challenge, his struggle, is common to many people coming back to the community.”

I first met Amili in January.

At the time, he was trying to get a series of workshops off the ground at Tacoma Community College. The curriculum was designed to help the formerly incarcerated prepare for college.

It’s a subject he knew well. After serving his time in prison, Amili managed to turn his GED into a master’s degree from the University of Washington Tacoma. It took him eight years.

Amili said he hoped to use his education to help people facing many of the same challenges he’d confronted.

It didn’t begin well.

The night of Amili’s first workshop, no one showed up.

We waited around for a while and then left.

I felt bad for him, because I’d grown to like Amili. Once you get to know him, it’s hard not to.

As we walked out of the empty room near the TCC library, he remained undeterred. It’s one of his charms.

In the end, things would work out for him, he told me with unexpected certainty.

I nodded in agreement. But knowing the obstacles faced by people who’ve been incarcerated, I was far from certain that they would.

As it turns out, I shouldn’t have doubted him.

Amili’s spirit has served him well in his post-prison life.

“With his tenacity, his determination and his upbeat attitude, it was pretty clear to me that he was determined to create a certain reality for himself and for others,” said UWT Professor Larry Knopp, who served as chairman of Amili’s master’s committee at UWT.

His new reality is a far cry from his old one.

Amili estimates the scheme that eventually landed him behind bars — known on the street as a “bank lick” — earned him somewhere between $200,000 and half a million dollars. All before he was old enough to legally buy alcohol.

For a kid who grew up with parents and stepparents addicted to crack cocaine, who was in and out of shelters and occasionally foster care, the fruits of this illegitimate labor made him feel like he’d “made it,” he said.

Bank licks paid for cars, clothes, shoes and other niceties that his self-described “dirt poor” upbringing never allowed for.

It was my first time having thousands of dollars, and it kind of sparked this – ‘Where’s the next lick?’... Coming from a really poor background, coming from nothing, and being able to get your hands on these large amounts of money, I jumped full in on that.

Omari Amili

“I was like, ‘This is the life,’” Amili recalled. “That was my idea of what success was at the time.”

He was 18 the first time he pulled it off, living in a cramped apartment with his mom on Hilltop, near the Fish House Cafe.

Amili forged a bad check for $2,500. The illegal payoff changed the trajectory of his life.

“It was my first time having thousands of dollars, and it kind of sparked this – ‘Where’s the next lick?’” Amili said. “Coming from a really poor background, coming from nothing, and being able to get your hands on these large amounts of money, I jumped full in on that.”

Amili told me the checks just got “bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Until it all caught up with him.

A few months after his 21st birthday, Amili learned a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He turned himself in.

He and his girlfriend had a small child at the time. Soon after pleading guilty he also had a Department of Corrections identification number.

Amili spent time behind bars in the Pierce County Jail, the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton and the Larch Corrections Center near Vancouver.

His sentence gave him time to think.

Then, in June of 2008, the criminal justice system spat Amili out. That’s what it does.

It’s in this cold truth that Amili found his calling. Since then, he’s dedicated his life to helping other people navigate the challenges he’s faced.

In March, after a job search that often left him so discouraged that he felt like he’d never be employable, that starting his own business might be his only hope, he was hired by South Seattle Community College.

He now teaches life skills to students recently released from prison and serves as a case manager for an employment-assistance program at the school. On Friday, he was one of several invited speakers at an event at The Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus called “Reinventing Reentry.”

In other words, he’s doing exactly what he set out to do.

With his tenacity, his determination and his upbeat attitude it was pretty clear to me that he was determined to create a certain reality for himself and for others.

UWT Professor Larry Knopp, chair of Amili’s master’s committee at UWT

“It’s almost like confirmation that everything I’ve done and been through has been for a purpose,” Amili told me this week, in his typical upbeat demeanor. “I’m really feeling like I’m working my calling right now.”

During our conversation, Amili laughed about the way things just seem to keep falling into place for him since he started “living the right way.”

He’s right and deserves a ton of credit.

But seeing everything Amili’s accomplished, and knowing what he’ll accomplish in the future, I can’t help but feel that there’s more to it.

I can’t help but feel like we have an obligation to help make stories like Amili’s the expectation, not the noteworthy exception.

Because anything less is a tragedy. And an incredible waste.

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