Inmates mingle in a recreation yard in view of guards, left, at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, in January, 2016. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press file photo)

Inmates mingle in a recreation yard in view of guards, left, at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, in January, 2016. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press file photo)

Comment: State prisoners need chance to earn earlier release

Legislation failed this year that would have allowed good behavior to count toward a reduced sentence.

By Christopher Blackwell and Nick Hacheney / For The Herald

Last year, the Washington state Department of Corrections did something that shocked all confined within its walls. It put out a proposal to address the racial disproportionality of sentencing in the state.

The proposal, which became SHB 1282 during this year’s session, addressed the fact that Black prisoners make up 19 percent of the prison population while Black people represent only 3.5 percent of the state population. Its suggested solution was to restore the opportunity to earn time off for good behavior (“earned time”) to previously set levels of 33 percent.

While this wouldn’t fix all the problems of a disproportionate criminal justice system, it would begin to allow those prisoners who have been moving in the right direction for years to gain some relief from the exceptional sentences they received.

Less chance to earn time: Over the past several decades, earned time has been virtually eliminated through “truth in sentencing” laws, mandatory sentences and weapons enhancements.

Today, most prisoners serving long-term sentences can only earn up to 10 percent off the portion of their sentence not covered by mandatory minimums and enhancements because “truth in sentencing laws” require those incarcerated to serve 100 percent of mandatory minimums and enhancements.

For example, a prisoner serving a 40-year sentence that consisted of a 20-year mandatory minimum and three weapons enhancements (five years each) would only be eligible to earn 10 percent of the remaining five years of the 40-year sentence. Thus, the incarcerated individual could earn a mere six months of reduced time. Not a tremendous incentive for good behavior.

Because of these scenarios, many prisoners serving extremely long sentences are often not eligible to take programs that prepare them for reintegration back into society and are later released without the skills needed to be a contributing member of society. Having the ability to earn an early release encourages prisoners to work to develop productive skills by addressing the areas that led them to prison in the first place (chemical dependency, anger issues, etc.), and most importantly, to learn how to be accountable for the harm they caused their communities.

Furthermore, prisoners who utilize these positive programs often never return to prison. Restoring opportunities to earn good time isn’t just letting prisoners out early. This time is not “given;” it must be earned through completing programs that help build and shape their character.

The effect on People of Color: The proposed change in the law is especially important to People of Color because they are generally sentenced to longer sentences. In 2019, over 40 percent of Washington prisoners were serving a sentence of 10 or more years and 17 percent were serving a life sentence. Despite representing less than 4 percent of the state population, Black prisoners make up 28 percent of those serving life sentences, 38 percent of those sentenced under the “three-strikes law,” 27 percent of those receiving extra time for enhancements and 24 percent of those serving sentences of 15 years or more. These figures come directly from the DOC itself and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The new DOC proposal projected that this one change would reduce the number of Black prisoners from 18 percent to 11 percent over a 10-year period. Not exactly groundbreaking, but for those who have languished in prison for decades with little chance of relief, any move in the right direction is significant.

Over the past 18 months, despite drastic limitations to meet due to covid restrictions, “inside groups” such as the Black Prisoners Caucus, Concerned Lifers Organization, Asian Pacific Islanders and Native American groups worked together with outside organizations such as FreeThemAll, Look2Justice, ACLU, Disabilities Rights Washington, Columbia Legal Services and many others to build a coalition of support for this and other legislative reforms aimed at addressing racial disproportionality and mass incarceration in Washington state.

Many prisoners wrote letters, shared personal experiences, and published articles (locally and nationally) about the impact of the proposed changes. Family members and social justice advocates met outside (mostly through Zoom) to strategize how to best push the movement forward.

A lawmaker who understood: When former prisoner and now state Rep. Tara Simmons, D-Bremerton, took up the cause and sponsored SHB 1282, the impact reverberated through the prison system. Incarcerated people finally had one of our own, someone who has experienced the system, speaking on their behalf in a position of power. In the midst of a year marred by several covid-19 outbreaks, suspension of visits and programming and widespread quarantine lock-downs, prisoners had something far too rare inside these walls: a glimmer of hope.

People who had spent years working through positive programs, earning college degrees, vocational certifications, and countless other achievements were finally going to have the opportunity to be rewarded for their efforts by returning home to their families and loved ones a little bit sooner.

Furthermore, prisoners who had been sentenced at a young age to multiple decades of incarceration had the opportunity to earn significant time off their sentence and come home before becoming senior citizens. Given the recent developments in brain science, we know those given such sentences need to have some form of review as they begin to develop fully functional adult brains.

When the legislative hearings were held, prisoners were glued to TVW and when a DOC official testified about the impact Washington’s sentencing practices have had on People of Color, prisoners found themselves in an extraordinarily unique position, allied with their keepers. Many prisoners couldn’t believe that DOC was acknowledging the things known for decades: people from impoverished communities of color have been targeted to fill the prison system at extremely high levels.

When the legislation stalled in committee (along with several other key pieces of legislation that would have addressed systemic racism in the justice system) the impact was devastating for both those inside prisons and those waiting for their return on the outside. Not to mention the advocates who had spent years fighting for justifiable sentence reform.

As one prisoner put it, “I am hurt, but not surprised; we always get left out. Politicians always talk about fixing racism but they never want to actually do anything about it. They continuously tell us about how they plan to address the harms that have been inflicted upon my community, but it’s all talk, once in office they always go back on promises, and communities of color are left to hope for the change that continues to evade us.”

A second chance: However, SHB 1282 isn’t dead. This bill, along with others, can still be passed in the comming legislative session. Advocates for the bill, however, are hearing that lawmakers are talking about amending key sections that would make the bill ineffectual for those most adversely impacted, namely those serving extremely long sentences. The very demographic that Black prisoners are the most disproportionately represented in.

Now, a second wave of covid is running through prisons and jails across the U>S., putting those in our overcrowded systems in even greater peril. Visiting for prisoners and their loved ones — along with all other positive programing opportunities — has again been placed in limbo, making prisons nothing more than warehouses meant to store human beings.

Many on the inside are wondering how much worse it can get before lawmakers step-in to address the dysfunctional, broken, racist system with proactive meaningful change.

For those serving long sentences, the bigger question is: How much longer will we have to wait before Washington legislators get serious about sentence reform? And more importantly, if they do pass legislation, will People of Color again be left behind?

Will fear mongering and false narratives that have been sold to our communities about the dangers presented by People of Color — “super-predators” — and the exceptional sentences needed to keep them confined win out?

We know the narratives are false, we know impoverished communities of color have been targeted, and we know locking humans up for extremely long sentences does nothing to keep society safer. It’s time we follow a different path in addressing how we incarcerate our fellow citizens, and proactively work to reintegrate them safely back into our communities. We must take a stand by refusing to allow legislators the ability to water down legislation that would begin to fix the damage caused to impoverished communities of color. Enough is enough!

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 many more outlets. You can follow him and be in touch on Twitter @chriswblackwell

Nick Hacheney is incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. He is a longtime advocate for environmental and educational programs in prison. He has previously published in BioCycle magazine, The Crime Report and presented a Tedx Talk on the environmental program he founded in prison He is also the co-founder of Environmental Advancement Reintegration Network (EARN), a business incubator/launching platform for prisoners seeking to build an environmental solutions business upon their release.

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