Timothy Tipton mumbled to himself, shuffling through papers and typing rapidly.
It’s finals week, and in a few hours Tipton would sit for a calculus and programming exam. This is his last chance to study, hunkered down in the room he shares at a clean-and-sober recovery house in Salmon Creek.
His side of the room is sparse, but there are some personal touches: a penguin figurine, prayers used in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, and certificates of completion from the Washington State Department of Corrections.
This is a point many years in the making for this 37-year-old Clark College student. On June 17, Tipton walked out of Larch Corrections Center, where he completed a sentence stemming from 2017 charges of vehicular assault.
Today, Tipton is happy, healthy and on his way to earning an associate degree. He plans to transfer to a university and study computer science. He’s excited about artificial intelligence, and about the ways technology can be used to help people.
“I want to be a better human,” he said.
It was only a few years ago that Tipton was in the throes of addiction. He first started using drugs and alcohol as a teenager after his mother, who had multiple sclerosis, started experiencing cognitive decline. He eventually did two stints in prison.
Tipton’s latest sentence brought him a revelation. He had a high school degree but no additional training. He could do manual labor, but the years had taken a toll on him. His relationship with his family was strained.
“I lost everything,” he said. “I’m here all alone in prison. When you come to, you realize you have to change it.”
Tipton started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings in prison. He’s been clean for two years. He took a few college classes, giving him a head start at Clark in advance of his summer release.
Tipton also became a peer tutor under Larch’s teaching assistant training program, the first ever certified by the College Reading and Learning Association. GED instructor Lauren Zavrel oversaw the program, and the two remain in touch. Tipton recently traveled to St. Louis, Mo., with Zavrel to attend the 2019 National Conference on Higher Education in Prison.
“It’s his social and personal redemption,” Zavrel said of Tipton’s time since his release.
Zavrel is cautious about attributing Tipton’s success to anything she or her class did. He was always going to succeed, she said, but enrolling in her program meant he left prison with a leg up.
“He has something shiny on his lapel,” she said.
And indeed, that “something shiny” parlayed into a gig as a peer mentor in Clark College’s transitional studies program, where Tipton helps students navigate the challenges of school. Tipton says those years spent in prison serve as motivation and, in some cases, a basis of understanding between himself and those students. He knows what it’s like to start from behind, he said. It means he can find common ground with students who are learning English for the first time, or with students who are returning to school after an extended absence.
“I’m changing lives out here,” Tipton said. “I’m helping students on a regular basis.”
‘You fix it’
Among the decorations on Tipton’s wall is a photo of him with his sister, Amanda Brown, her daughter, and their mother, who died shortly after this photo was taken. He’s unrecognizable with a shaved head, dark glasses and a half smile on his now often grinning face.
Tipton’s gained something else on release: a relationship with his family. He recently spent Thanksgiving with Brown and her children.
“I got to hold my nephew,” Tipton said.
Brown said she barely knew her brother growing up. She was in grade school when their mother went into nursing care due to her worsening illness, and moved in with their grandmother while Tipton struggled through his addiction.
“He realizes the hurt he has put on his family,” Brown said. “He realizes that we’re not going to be around and I’m not going to help him out if he doesn’t straighten up.”
Tipton knows the stakes are high. But he also knows, this time, he isn’t going back to prison. He’s “not about that life,” he said, with its instant coffee, “toxic masculinity” and a life isolated from those he’s eager to help.
“You figure out what’s wrong,” he said, flipping through pages of his calculus textbook. “You fix it, and you don’t have to go back to it.”