Reforming Laws From Behind Bars
Prison reformists—many of whom are serving long sentences—have united to change the cruel and arbitrary carceral system.
My first experience with the carceral system came at the age of 12, and it lasted a full year. It forever changed my life—and not for the better.
I was abused by the juvenile detention center and the staff who worked there; they placed me in solitary confinement, among other traumatic experiences, simply because I acted out, like all kids do. I never trusted authority again. Those early experiences led me to develop a strong will to fight the injustices that reside within our criminal justice system.
I was raised in a mixed-race Native American and White family in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington. In the early 1990s, my neighborhood was one of the roughest places to live in the country, ravaged by violence from over-policing, gangs, and drugs. By age 14, I had dropped out of school and followed in the footsteps of the neighborhood drug dealers—my role models—by becoming a dealer myself. I was in and out of juvenile detention centers until, at the age of 22, I was sentenced to 45 years in prison for taking another human’s life while robbing a fellow drug dealer.
Prior to being imprisoned, I’d never thought about legislation, how a bill gets passed, who’s involved, any of it. I just felt those who come from communities like mine are never a part of the process of making laws. It was easy to have this misconception because everything that passed through the legislature seemed to target my community in a negative way. Never once had I met a legislator during my brief stint at school, or in the streets of my community. Those chosen to represent areas like mine never seemed compelled to grace us with their presence, so I never gave policies, laws, or how they were enacted a second thought. I just figured my voice didn’t matter and that being involved was far above my grasp. I was just a broke kid from a neighborhood no one cared about. And now that I was incarcerated, I felt even more powerless.
It wasn’t until my early 30s, about a decade into my sentence, that I realized how powerful my voice was in the political arena. Collaborations and political education with the people incarcerated alongside me led to drafting the kind of legislation we wanted to see in issues around sentence reform, racial disparities, and the mistreatment of impoverished communities. It began when a friend incarcerated at the same prison, Nick Hacheney, invited me to attend a Concerned Lifers Organization meeting at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, about 40 minutes outside Seattle.
I had been incarcerated around eight years at that point, with 37 left to go. Nick had been dropping hints for a couple of weeks that I should get involved, that I had a voice—we all did, we just needed to use it, and the more of us who joined together, the louder our voices would be. If loud enough, he said, we could possibly change the system that had abused us since our youth, and help future generations by changing the targeted laws—like the use of juvenile convictions in adult court cases—that harmed us as kids.
At first, I thought he was crazy and detached from communities like mine. He was White, college-educated, and grew up in a vastly different way than me and my friends—definitely not in extreme poverty with police harassing him daily, as so many of us in prison experienced. So how would he know anything about the change that needed to take place in our communities? Little did I know he was about to awaken the organizer within me.
In attending Concerned Lifers meetings, I was in the room with legislators, lobbyists, judges, prosecutors, college professors, and other political actors for the first time. It was a stark contrast to the courtrooms where I’d been sentenced and sent to prison.
The Concerned Lifers Organization, in coalition with the Black Prisoners Caucus at the prison, put on a series of yearly conferences centered on areas of concern in our communities: rehabilitation in prison, the school-to-prison pipeline, how to be accountable for the harm we’ve caused our communities.
The room would be packed, not just with influential people from outside, but also former prisoners who’d done extremely well since their release. We gave speeches—some of us for the first time—and had breakout sessions to discuss and highlight issues from our lived experiences and how best to resolve them. We worked diligently to build a community of actors that would be able to start facilitating change.
One issue that resonated with us was Washington’s lack of parole—it is among 16 states that do not offer or severely limit the conditional release of a prisoner before their full sentence is complete.
One issue that resonated with us was Washington’s lack of parole—it is among 16 states that do not offer or severely limit the conditional release of a prisoner before their full sentence is complete. So, we constructed legislation that would allow people in prison a chance to have their cases reviewed. Our biggest shot came in 2019 with SB 5819, which would have established a post-conviction review board and review process for early release of qualifying prisoners. But the final 100-page bill included every reason to refuse a person’s release and excluded a large swath of people. The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jeannie Darneille, ultimately let it die in the Ways and Means Committee.
Our next approach focused on evidence, science, and data-driven reform. In 2019, we began proposing an amendment to the Juvenile Second Chance Act (SB 5064) to include that anyone charged at age 25 or younger would have the opportunity for their case to be reviewed by Washington’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. If the board found them no longer to be a threat to society, they would be released from confinement. We also drafted language to create a new bill that would mandate a review process under the review board for all incarcerated individuals who had served 20 years and who are age 50 or older. This bill was supported by data that show people often age out of crime.
Through these efforts, we increasingly grasped how legislation worked. Certain things became apparent: All legislation took time, and things rarely happened on their own. It’s never simply about something being logical. The arena we were now navigating was extremely political, and often deals—or rather, compromises—had to be made in order to achieve a desired outcome.
We had to figure out which compromises we were comfortable with so that Concerned Lifers could work as a united front. Many criminal justice reform bills focus on people with nonviolent offenses, even though a large percentage of people incarcerated have convictions for violent crimes. Were we willing to exclude people with aggravated murder convictions, even though we knew statistics showed people who received the harshest sentences are almost always from impoverished communities of color? Or was our approach, “all for one, and one for all,” a commitment to enacting reforms and opportunities that could lead to release for all of us, regardless of conviction?
The one thing we knew was that the people most impacted—those of us from over-policed, impoverished communities—needed to have our voices at the front of the movement. It was imperative to reverse the harm caused by fearmongering narratives in the media, aggressive laws meant to target the poor, and over-policing.
We worked for a decade organizing around the lack of parole in Washington state. In those years, I learned that forming unity among those looking to enact desired changes was imperative in achieving our goals.
Incremental change was always the biggest point of contention. Realistically, what legislator would propose a bill that only included the most serious violent offenses? We knew we couldn’t leave those individuals behind—it would be a sentence of death-by-incarceration. If only one group was able to receive relief, the pressure to push for incremental change continued.
But everyone had their own agenda and ideas about the best way to get there. Often individuals who were not currently incarcerated would take the lead, deciding how legislation would be pushed or what to concede, but their proposals never seemed to work. The things they would allow, like who is deserving of relief (which to them meant everyone except people charged with aggravated murder), were never in line with what we, the incarcerated, were willing to concede. This was because we were actively living the experience; it was our brothers and sisters currently serving time who would suffer the most. Our goal wasn’t simply to pass any form of legislation, but to pass meaningful legislation that would support all of our comrades with the ability to receive an opportunity of relief. We knew something had to change.
We began to have honest discusions—at times extremely heated ones—that often felt uncomfortable and left many of us feeling as if we were beating our heads against a wall. We knew we needed to form a united front on the inside, so we had hundreds of meetings,
hashing out differences and struggling to see each other’s views. Eventually, we formed a solid group of individuals from each impacted community: the Black Prisoners Caucus, the Concerned Lifers Organization, the Native Circle, the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Group, the State Raised Group, and Nuestro Grupo Cultural.
We then began to network with our supporters on the outside and other organizations doing criminal justice reform, along with formerly incarcerated people working in the community. That included collaborations with the Coalition for Racial Justice in Sentencing, ACLU of Washington, Disability Rights Washington, the Freedom Project, Collective Justice, the King County Department of Public Defense, and Washington Defender Association. We asked the groups to support our voices by lifting them up—talking through us and not for us.
In 2019, we decided to formalize this inside coalition to tackle pieces of legislation we collectively agreed on. Individuals from many communities came together and founded Look2Justice, a grassroots organization of those impacted by the criminal justice system. Those in prison were empowered to voice the direction of the movement: Incarcerated people became the heart, while those in the community became the body to carry and deliver our message.
We developed a statewide network of currently incarcerated advocates and helped establish a coalition supporting three important pieces of sentencing legislation during the 2021–22 legislative session: the Retroactive Elimination of Juvenile Points (HB 1413), which prohibits using juvenile adjudications in adult-offender score calculations; Emerging Adult Parole (HB 1344), which raises the age limit for those eligible for parole; and the expansion of Earned Early Release Time (HB 1282), which enables incarcerated people to earn up to 33% off every portion of their sentence without exclusions for type of crime, enhancements, or mandatory minimums.
In support of the campaign, outside advocates and organizations conducted stakeholder meetings, held civic education trainings, and published a newsletter. A number of our incarcerated leaders and outside organizers published op-eds in local and national publications to build further support, and our campaign even began to receive national coverage.
To make sure our movement didn’t deviate from its intended structure, we created a set of principles and values that were nonnegotiable, for both our policy goals and our internal organizing principles. We wanted legislation that would allow all people the ability to heal and transform; be inclusive to all, regardless of conviction; and prevent the building of new prisons.
As we progressed through the 2021 legislative session, we prisoners would line up at our cells—grabbing the bars tight, with excitement in our eyes, to watch the legislative hearings playing on our personal televisions. We were trying to understand where our bills were in the process and what was needed for them to pass. The few of us who understood the path a bill needed to travel to become law explained the process to the others and worked to dispel misconceptions.
In the coming year, Look2Justice plans to launch an inside–outside civic education and empowerment program, a peer-led curriculum developed collectively by our inside and outside organizers that will help further develop innate leadership skills in cohorts of activists. This would include demystifying the legislative and policy-creation processes, as well as building reform movements. Our bills currently working their way through the legislature advocate for decarceration-focused legislation that leads with racial justice and evidence.
Look2Justice has also facilitated opportunities for prisoners to testify at the legislature, so that we can speak for ourselves. Making that happen was not easy, as we needed clearance from the Department of Corrections, which often denied all but a select few cases that met the department’s opaque standards. We also recently held our first annual symposium, Breaking the Trauma to Prison Pipeline, which provided an opportunity for formerly incarcerated people to meet with policymakers and share their experiences working to heal their communities.
As we continue to build a network of incarcerated members, we are constantly met with challenges. Some prisons have rejected or have thrown away any mail sent by our organization, actively preventing prisoners from receiving information that pertains to possible relief of their sentences. And if this wasn’t enough, the impact of COVID-19 put us at a great disadvantage with continuous lockdowns and growing numbers of cases and deaths.
Still, we have persevered.
We have now developed a foundation that can withstand anything. And that’s exactly what we need to pass this type of all-inclusive reform legislation—the bills we’re already working on, plus future progressive sentencing-reform policy changes. The key to our success is in building community by being honest, transparent, and unified. When we have that support, nothing can hold us back from successfully changing the system that’s harmed us for far too long.