By Raymond Williams and Christopher Blackwell / For The Herald
“What exactly is a senator?” asked Juan Garcia, a 36-year-old Hispanic prisoner who’s been in and out of the carceral system for decades. Other prisoners looked up from the table, suddenly distracted from their dinner, and quickly began offering varying degrees of explanation. The conversation continued as if we were in a classroom.
“So then, what is Congress?” he asked, eager to hear more.
Civic education is lacking in schools and many communities across the nation. This lack of civic education has consequences, and those consequences often fall along demographic lines that disproportionately affect impoverished communities and communities highly populated with Black and Brown people. These same communities suffer disproportionate levels of justice-involved people that feed state prison systems.
Once incarcerated, disenfranchised people are further removed from participating in a political system that they never realized they had a right to. Once released, they leave prison with no sense of voice, no understanding of political process or the rights they have as citizens. They rejoin a society they do not realize they have a stake in; they re-enter as an “other,” someone who doesn’t have a seat at the table. This problem exacerbates the crime cycle and bolsters marginalization of crime-affected communities.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The Washington State Reformatory in Monroe was a unique prison in many respects. One thing that made the reformatory there unique were the programs, groups and support networks that flourished there. Among those were programs that facilitated education and participation in the civic process: the Concerned Lifer’s Organization, Latino Development Organization, Black Prisoners Caucus), and the Alliance, an LGBTQ activist group. These groups all played key roles in the development of prisoners’ knowledge around the political arena.
Prisoners at Monroe reformatory were encouraged to find community in these groups: participate in conversations, share their stories and become civically engaged. But programs that facilitate civic engagement in prisons are extremely rare. Most prison administrators do not tolerate their existence, and those who attempt to build such platforms are viewed as disruptive and defiant.
Rather than disruptive, civically engaged prisoners are vested people meeting with lawmakers, philanthropists and community organizers to discuss causes and solutions to mass incarceration and other pressing social issues. Groups like those mentioned above were dedicated to ending the crime cycle, fostering equality and making our communities safer by facilitating access to higher education. The work prisoners did in these groups was a net positive value to society and helped inform legislative processes.
At least it was before covid-19.
As the pandemic ravaged society, prisons swiftly shut down these programs. As people in society were reimagining public safety, prisons administrators were reimagining incarceration.
The Washington state Department of Corrections reimagined incarceration by closing the reformatory in Monroe, a decision that eliminated nearly all groups within the Department of Corrections conducting civic engagement. Prisoners who comprised those groups have since been transferred from Monroe to other prisons across the state, and are now trying to rebuild similar groups, reestablish ties to the community, and re-engage in the civic process. Yet such efforts are — thus far — unsuccessful.
To the prisoners who once led and participated in these groups, Correction’s resistance is predictable. Even within the haven of the reformatory, the relationship between civically engaged groups and prison administrators was tenuous. After all, prisons are not in the business of decarceration, nor did Corrections ever feel comfortable with prisoner groups articulating to community stakeholders and legislators — the department’s bosses — the ways that the department is failing. It is no mystery, then, why other institutions within Corrections have not allowed similar groups to form.
But this obstruction does not serve anyone other than interests within the department invested in the penal model of incapacitation that have built the carceral state.
In August, an administrator at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton told members of the Black Prisoners Caucus that policy was changing and they would no longer be approved to meet. This statement was retracted the next day — after immediate community backlash — and a higher ranking administrator explained to key members of the caucus that the original administrator’s statement was taken out of context.
While the caucus is currently the only recognized group within Corrections that is sanctioned to engage in civic action, a policy change had the group suspended as the department struggled to sort out a new policy. By mid-September the matter was resulted. The Black Prisoners Caucus must now abide by a memorandum of understanding. This means the caucus will be controlled by Corrections in accordance with the language of the agreement, and purported violations of language within the agreements may put the caucus in jeopardy. Essentially, Corrections bullied the caucus into an arrangement that feels an awful lot like a knee above their necks, thinly veiled as a promise to let them breathe.
The closure of the reformatory at Monroe and the recent suspension of the Black Prisoners Caucus demonstrates how easily progress can be stymied, voices can be silenced, and marginalization enforced by authoritarian interests. Prisoners shouldn’t be forced to rely on the grace of their oppressors in order to become civically engaged and educated.
It is through the lens of these obstacles that a solution is in order. Prisoners need a bill of rights for civic engagement. A Prisoners Bill of Rights for Civic Engagement would enshrine the opportunity for prisoners to learn about and participate in civic engagement, to form groups to conduct this work, and to have platforms that host lawmakers and community members wishing to engage with prisoners on such issues.
There is no benefit to society in barring prisoners from being civically engaged. Civic engagement is the antithesis of crime itself. Civically engaged prisoners will reduce the crime cycle. Work toward that end serves society.
When we know better, we do better.
Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. He co-founded Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Huff Post, Insider and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.
Raymond Williams is serving a life without parole sentence under Washington state’s three-strike law. He is co-founder of the State Raised Working Group, a group of former foster youth who work to eliminate the foster-care-to-prison pipeline. He is a musician, mentor, and leader of criminal justice reform efforts. He is a core member of the Concerned Lifers Organization. His writing has been published in PEN America. You can follow him on Twitter @raywilliams80.