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Our Story

Educate. Motivate. Liberate.

Who We Are

Founded in 2015, Civil Survival organizes people in the state of Washington who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system to build connections, gain knowledge and increase political participation.

Our work promotes successful family and community reintegration for people releasing from incarceration by removing the many financial, political and legal barriers to reentry. Nearly one in four people in Washington State have been involved in the criminal justice system. Civil Survival is working to improve their chances of becoming productive members of their communities by removing some of the many collateral consequences of mass incarceration.

What Makes Us Unique

Civil Survival’s work is led by and for formerly incarcerated individuals. Our Executive Director spent two years in prison as a consequence to her life of trauma, poverty and substance use disorder. She has since graduated law school and fought her way to the Washington Supreme Court to earn the right to become an attorney. There is no other organization working on criminal justice reform in Washington State that has people who have experienced the criminal justice system in leadership. We believe this is important because those closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from the resources. The combination of professional and personal experience makes our organization credible to advocate for solutions to improve a system that is not serving society well. Our work and our leadership is bringing real equity to the social justice advocacy community in Washington State.

Our Work

Civil Survival engages its members by conducting full-day educational Workshops followed by monthly Game Changer Group (GCG) meetings around the State of Washington. Our members are also active participants in the political process, including testifying before judges and lawmakers and helping to pass significant statewide legislation.


Our Workshops provide information and training designed to address the barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals. Workshops include educational content provided by Civil Survival leaders and allies, facilitated group discussions about what our participants are experiencing and advocacy training about how everyone can participate in the legislative process. This is followed by face-to-face interactions with elected officials to tell individual stories and personalize the need for legislative solutions. Workshop participants are also given the opportunity to register to vote. Experience has shown that 30% – 40% of workshop participants will register to vote at the workshop. The others are either ineligible (still on probation or parole) or already registered. Removing the barriers to reentry identified in our Workshops have become areas of focus for elected officials, union members, and allied organizations.

Civil Survival has conducted eleven Workshops throughout Washington since October 2015:

  • 405 formerly-incarcerated individuals attended
  • 32 legislators/public officials attended
  • 45 organization-affiliated individuals attended
  • 120 individuals were registered to vote

We have Workshops planned for Kent in December 2018 and Tacoma in early 2019.


Monthly Game Changer Groups

Game Changer Groups (GCG’s) are local meetings of individuals who have attended Civil Survival workshops or who are interested in the issues we address. From our experience, we anticipate that 20% of those who attend workshops will become members of their local GCG. GCG’s are led and organized by justice-involved individuals, along with friends, family and allies.  Members focus on local and state issues and set their own agenda. Civil Survival provides administrative, substantive, and financial support to the GCG’s.

The real and ongoing work of Civil Survival takes place through GCG’s. GCG’s are uniquely qualified to push for change as their members are the ones directly impacted by institutional policies, state laws and ordinances that impede reentry.
Through the GCG’s, justice-involved individuals introduce themselves to community leaders, administrative authorities and legislators, and become engaged in the process of reform. The work they do affects people where they live and work, and enables them to “come out of the closet” and to be active and open members of their respective communities.

Civil Survival started with one Game Changer Group in Kitsap County, WA. This has been duplicated and there are now GCG’s in four counties Thurston, South King, Pierce , and Kitsap. We are  working to form GCG’s in in more communities. Civil Survival and its GCG members have participated in a variety of activities designed to reduce barriers to reentry in Washington.


  • Our Executive Director, Tarra Simmons, is the co-chair of the statewide reentry Council and our Board Chair, Christopher Poulos, is the Executive Director of the Council.
  • Members testified about reentry issues at Annual Judicial Conference before 400 judges from across the country and the globe.
  • Testified before the Washington State Supreme Court regarding barriers to reentry.
  • Members have testified at numerous city, county and state legislative hearings on issues impacting formerly incarcerated individuals.
  • Held voter registration drives at Workshops and community events.
  • Gave presentations about issues affecting former justice-involved individuals in community forums and professional conferences.


Legislative Change

Civil Survival and its GCG members have contributed to significant legislative changes throughout Washington, including laws such as:

○ Fair Chances in Education, banning the box for public college applications;
○ Fair Chances in Employment, banning the box on employment applications and
○ Legal Financial Obligation Reform, reducing crippling interest and fines imposed by the State on the justice-involved.


Relationships with Allied Community Organizations

We understand that our efforts can be amplified and expanded by building and maintaining strong relationships with other organizations that promote social justice. Civil Survival has built and nurtured relationships and coalitions with many allied organizations. Some of these include: Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS), Columbia Legal Services, Washington Community Action Network, Statewide Poverty Action Network, Black Prisoners Caucus, I Did The Time, Sustainability in Prisons, IF Project, , Washington Defenders Association, Disability Rights Washington, Pre-apprenticeship and Construction Education program (PACE), Washington Recovery Alliance, the ACLU of Washington and the NAACP.