Inmates Bestow Wisdom and Playing Boards Upon Detective’s Chess Club

by Marcus Harrison Green

Children at Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin’s Saturday morning chess club regularly receive words of wisdom upon rushing through the doors of the Rainier Beach Community Center recreation room to challenge all competitors in the “sport of the mind.”  

But this Saturday the sage advice poured in not only from the 30 year Seattle Police Department veteran, but from those on the other side of the justice system:  currently incarcerated prisoners.

Letters encouraging the pre-teens to continue in their academic pursuits, support their families, and stay away from gangs where left on tables, along with twenty freshly constructed chessboards made from scrap wood and engraved with “Cookie’s Chess Club.”

Inmates of the Stafford Creek Corrections Center involved with The If Project crafted both, as a way to give back to society – even from behind bars – and also lend some cautionary lessons.

“We asked inmates if there was  something someone could’ve said or done to change their path to prison what would that be? I got to hear a lot of stories about why people ended up in prison,” said Detective Kim Bogucki, who is the founder of The If Project, and one of nearly a dozen law enforcement officials and Stafford Corrections Staff that joined with nearly two dozen kids to engage in intense games of chess.

Bogucki, a 28 year veteran of the SPD, founded The If Project eight and a half years ago with formerly imprisoned adults in an attempt to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates in Washington State, rates that according to a 2013 report by the Washington Institute for Public Policy have held steady since 2001.

Detective Bogucki also serves on the board of the Washington State Correctional Industries (WSCI), a division of the State’s Department of Corrections that employs inmates within prisons. These dual roles coalesced in her friendship with Detective Cookie, who she’s served with on the SPD for nearly 3 decades, after Cookie mentioned the chess club could use some new boards to replace the somewhat flimsy, plastic ones kids were playing on.

(From left to right) Detective Kim Bogucki, Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin, and Danielle Armbruster stand behind a sandwich board identifying Cookie’s Chess Club made by inmates at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. [Photo Credit: Rainier Beach Merchants Association]
Prisoners working in Stafford’s furniture factory were so excited for the project that WSCI ended up with more volunteers than the project could accommodate.

“We had an astounding number of individuals who wanted to help out.  So we had to pick and choose, and we picked about 5 or 6 people, who worked on the design all the way up to producing the items,” said Danielle Armbruster, the Assistant Secretary for WSCI, who was on hand to deliver the chess boards noting that more are on the way as soon as additional scrap wood destined for a landfill can be acquired.

Armbruster also said the chess board making process, which took inmates about two months to complete, exemplified WSCI’s goal of supplying inmates with the necessary technical skills to land a job once they returned to the outside. WSCI also wants to bestow inmates with skills to keep a job, such as learning how to constructively interact with others.

The new chess boards given to Detective Cookie’s Chess Club, created by inmates in Stafford’s furniture making facility. [Photo Credit: Rainier Beach Merchants Association]
Those soft skills were displayed in handwritten notes found next to each chess board on Saturday afternoon. They were written by prisoners whose familiarity with the club stemmed from a visit Detective Cookie made to Stafford a month ago.

Cookie described her multicultural mix of South Seattle children from different backgrounds and cultures – some speaking completely different languages – all bound together each Tuesday and Saturday in either the Rainier Beach Library or Rainier Beach Community Center by the game of chess. 

Far from a trivial pastime, she explained, it is a metaphor for life: instructing her kids about the consequences of poor decisions. In the game of chess, you might lose your King; in reality, however, the wrong move might cost you your freedom.

The detective reiterated this message to the kids in attendance at her club on Saturday during brief remarks thanking both the If Project and WSCI as she fought back tears.

Her earlier words seemed to cause reflection, and praise for the program from the inmates at Stafford. One letter signed by an inmate named Oscar read:

I am very glad to be a part of bringing these chess boards to you […} I just wish I had someone like Detective Cookie in my life when I was young. I think the hardest thing about doing time is being apart from your family. I wish I had someone who told me all of the things I was going to miss being locked up {…} I would have made some better choices as an adult, choices that would have kept me out of prison.

Those words found appreciation from at least one parent in attendance.

“Today shows that even though they’re incarcerated they’re still educated and still able to speak to kids, even though it’s not directly. They’re still giving them wisdom, knowledge and experience,” said Tiniell Cato, who described herself as an advocate for youth detention alternatives.

Her 12-year-old son Quinton, who has been a member of the chess club for three weeks, also absorbed that lesson on Saturday. “Today taught me that you always have to think about your choices. This is just practice but in real life it can affect you and your family,” he reflected.

Both Bogucki and Bouldin, also hoped Saturday could serve as a step in the right direction of bridging the divide between SPD and communities of color as well as halting the cycle of before it starts.

“This really is a part of ending mass incarceration. These kinds of things are a way we can really start repairing and rebuilding relationships with communities that have had issues with the police,” said Bogucki.

As the kids in the chess club sat across from law enforcement personal to take them on in games of chess, Saturday may have been only a small move in that direction, but a move nonetheless.  

And as the members of Detective Cookie’s Chess Club have come to learn, small moves often have big consequences.

One thought on “Inmates Bestow Wisdom and Playing Boards Upon Detective’s Chess Club”

  1. Great article about a great program and some great people! Just one correction: the chess club meets Tuesdays, not Wednesdays, at the Rainier Beach Library. (2:30 – 5:00) Thanks for your excellent work!