After 15 Years in Prison, OSU Student Finds Hope, Sobriety


Phillip Rakowski got out of jail and straightaway began swigging his favored rotgut--cranberry flavored R&R. His second order of business was to make the rounds collecting drug debts that had gone unpaid during his incarceration. There was much to do and, in all likelihood,not much time to do it. Freedom never lasted long for Rakowski.

All was going smoothly until a stop in Brownsville. The money wasn’t there, the man said, and Rakowski’s girlfriend wasn’t having it, so she bolted from the car and began swinging a heavy, metal flashlight at the man.

Rakowski, experienced at sensing misadventure and often sticking around to become a part of it, instead yelled at her to get in the car. He got behind the wheel and slammed the modified ’98 Mustang GT into first, then second. At more than 4,000 rpm he double-clutched into third, and by the time he crashed into the guardrail, he was doing 95 mph.

He was hurled from the car on its first roll. It flipped three more times before landing on its side— the driver’s side of the crushed vehicle. His collarbone was broken, his girlfriend suffered minor injuries, and Rakowski, as was his tendency, was headed back to jail. It didn’t even take him 24 hours.

On Feb. 4, 2010, he appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty to DUI and third-degree assault. The date is notable not only because it was his last conviction. It also was when he had his last drink. The date is written on the chalkboard of the Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) clubhouse in McNary Hall.

Initiated in the fall, the center provides a space for recovering students to study, socialize and support each other. By fall, it is hoped the program will include housing, as the university’s Student Health Services addresses the needs of those in recovery.

Rakowski is an advocate for sobriety and services for those in recovery. It’s a role in which he educates as much as inspires. It’s never too late, he says. There are services to support and people who care—even about him. At age 41, he has spent some 15 years locked up for drug-related crimes, primarily assault.

His late mother once told him that she felt comfort knowing he was in prison, where, by fist and wit, he had made a name for himself that served as protection and governance.

“I was comfortable in prison,” he says. “I knew how to live in prison. I was somebody in prison.”           

At age 13, Rakowski’s mother was sentenced on drug charges. His older brother, now coaching soccer at LaGrange College in Georgia, found a family to take him in. Rakowski did too. A Woodburn street gang welcomed him to “la vida loca,” the crazy life of the streets, where he became known as Thumper.

“The home boys, that was my familia, man,” he says. “That was my life, and I realized then that prison was going to be a part of my life, ‘cause that’s where they went.”   Rakowski, Phillip

Rakowski’s pattern of crime unfolded at age 16, when he did a year and a half for assault. In 1992, as an adult, he pulled five years for another assault; and in 1999 did another five years. In 2004, when he was released, his stepfather picked him up at the bus station and took him home, where he found his mother ill and exhausted from a wrangled life.

“When can I rest?” she asked her son. 

Despite her shortcomings, Rakowski, in ways difficult to dissect and survey, loved her. When he was 5, she hitchhiked with him and his brother from California to Oregon to flee their father, who was being released from prison. Like much of Rakowski’s life—and those of many others—intent focused on escape--literally and internally.

It was around that time that he began to see the larger picture of his life. He stayed clean and sober and for 6 ½ months worked making custom modular homes. Within two months, he was promoted to lead man. It was a new form of success, and he began thinking about a broader range of possibilities.

His notions were vague and distant, and, perhaps, that’s why they didn’t last. In between incarcerations during the next few years, he managed to find his way to Linn-Benton Community College, where he surprised himself by earning a 3.5 GPA.

The following year, however, he returned to the streets.

“I hadn’t committed myself to education,” he says. “I hadn’t learned how to love myself.”

Then came Feb. 4, 2010, when he walked into court and pleaded guilty to Assault 3 and DUII. He served 13 months, enough time to decide it was time to turn around his downward train of a life. He returned to LBCC in spring of 2011 and found the support of mentors who saw in him what he couldn’t see in himself.

He entered OSU this fall with a 3.55 grade point average, improved to 3.75 as he entered spring term. A sociology major, he hopes to create a non-profit organization promoting education as a means of rehabilitation.

He now serves on the Education Implementation Subcommittee for the Governor’s Re-entry Council for the Department of Corrections and was a member of LBCC Student Leadership Council while attending there. He is the state re-entry officer for Oxford Houses of Oregon and mentors and advocates for those released from prison.

As he sits at a table in the CRC, he lifts his fists. “I can’t use these anymore,” he says. He points to his head. “I have to use this, and I have to constantly check my motives. I always have to tell myself that I’m just one bad decision from being right back where I was. I can’t let that happen.”

Rakowski lives in Albany at the Oxford House, where those in recovery support each other as they put in place one brick at a time hoping to build a new foundation and a sturdy belief in themselves.

“Why would I want to go back to that life after all that I’ve achieved?” he says. “I have no self-confidence a lot of the time. I never thought I’d get this far. I should be confident with what I’ve achieved, but sometimes I feel that my accomplishments aren’t really me.”

He credits the Oxford House with providing him with structure, and he credits those at LBCC and OSU for providing him with mentors who have supported and helped him discover within himself a man with open hands rather than fists.

 “I realized that the definition of insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. That’s what I was doing.”

When he visits prisons and rehabilitation programs to tell his story, he describes the steep, uphill climb that must be faced head-on. What makes it worthwhile, he says, is the spectacular view from above.

 Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki


Collegiate Recovery Community

Governor’s Re-entry Council (REC)

Linn-Benton Community College

Oxford House