Activism Behind Bars: How a Group of Prisoners Sent a Message to the Outside World

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January 20 rally at Washington State capitol. Photo by Becky Blanchard.

It wasn’t quite the Bastille—but for incarcerated individuals in Washington state, like us, it was almost as liberating.

At 5:30 pm on January 20, nearly 400 protesters stormed—more accurately, sat on—the northern steps of Washington State’s Capitol Building in Olympia. Their mission: hold a rally to end mass incarceration.

And while rallies are nothing novel, this one had a unique backstory.

It was inspired by a social justice group established behind bars, and it took place with the planning assistance of their families and outside activists. Our hope was that the local media would cover the event and, by extension, capture the attention of lawmakers and the outside community.

By 10 pm that night, the local news aired a surprisingly neutral report highlighting both the issue of mass incarceration and the protesters’ motivations.

But the real lesson—perhaps one that inmates elsewhere in the country might take to heart as well—is that Washington inmates have constructed a framework for how prison-based activism can play a constructive role in nationwide efforts to end mass incarceration.

How We Got Here—and Who We Are

On nearly every Monday evening for the last 45 years, a group of 30 or so incarcerated men has met in a white-walled and sparsely furnished room within the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. The un-shaded blaze of fluorescent light illuminates faces that span generations—anywhere from 18 to 84.

When community guests are present—sitting amongst the men at irregular intervals—the group introduces itself, one member at a time, in what has become part-macabre ritual, part-stoic nod to their circumstance. Moving in one direction or another around the circle, each member says his name, how long he has been in, and how long he has to go.

The numbers are staggering: the time spent inside quickly reaches centuries; the time left to go, for too many, is forever. This is a meeting of the Concerned Lifers  Organization (CLO).

The CLO’s weekly meetings have two broad goals in mind: (1) support one other, and (2) generate ideas that will foster public solidarity and legislative support for dismantling the carceral state.

The first goal manifests itself in many ways. For some, the presence of others facing the same fate fills them with strength—at least enough to make it another week. For others, support is more complicated.

Participants come with genuine complaints about conditions in the prison that would shock the conscience of any person who has never ventured behind these walls, yet don’t even register as wrong to the inured emotions of corrections staff.

Fellow members hear these complaints and chime in with potential solutions: challenge the issue with the institutional review process; raise a claim in the state or federal court system: contact advocates from the ACLU, Disability Rights Washington, or Columbia Legal Services; hold out hope that laws will change and our daily humiliation will relent.

Some suggestions prove effective. Most don’t.

The second goal reflects more ambition and, not surprisingly, represents a bigger hurdle. As with groups on the “outside,” consensus is hard to achieve. Setting out what “ending the carceral state” means or what it would take to create public unity around the cause is daunting.

Cultivating political will among lawmakers is a perilous and mammoth undertaking for which English nomenclature perhaps doesn’t yet have an appropriate designation—none that capture the hope-crushing gravity of the task, anyway.

For years, our group has spread a consistent message—that the corrections apparatus is a bloated and broken system that neither addresses the harm done to victims nor rehabilitates the majority of people who commit crime. But the message seems to reach only those who already support us and our cause.

And among those who don’t hear our message, it seems as though they think prison isn’t a problem in the Pacific Northwest—as if the home of Starbucks, Amazon, and other juggernauts of new-age progressivism,  can’t host a draconian system like mass incarceration.

We behind the walls know better.

One night in June 2019, a member posed a simple question to the larger group: How can we create a moment where everyone comes together around one clear idea on which we all can agree? As often happens in collectives, ideas popped like kernels in a microwave.

What about welcoming more outside guests to visit our group? What about inviting tough-on-crime politicians to our annual conference? Someone finally called out a thought that captured the attention of the entire group: What about a rally that would call out mass incarceration in Washington and recognize our brothers and sisters who are currently serving death-by-incarceration sentences?

That was it.

A rally would concentrate our supporters in a single space and amplify their voices in a way that couldn’t be ignored. It would produce a moment for others to hear our message.

That moment, we dared to hope, would spark a movement.

Prison Voice Washington (PVW)—an organization that leverages the narratives of people affected by prison to advocate for smart criminal justice reforms—shouldered the responsibility of making the rally happen, given that confinement complicated our ability to do anything more than provide the concept.

In the months that followed, our plan became more concrete—and more ambitious.

We hoped to flood the northern steps of the capitol building with our supporters. In our vision the rally would begin with a song written by prisoners and performed by a blues singer/social activist before turning to speeches from justice-involved people, several of whom had sat in our circle less than a year before.

1,300 Candles

The rally would end with a 1,300-candle vigil, a recognition of the 1,300 men and women in Washington serving life without parole—effectively sentenced to die in prison—as well as their families, their victims and their families, and all others affected by mass incarceration in our state.

We chose January 20—MLK Day—to hold the event based on its historical association with activism and mass incarceration’s current association with systemic racism. And conveniently it was a holiday, which would allow more supporters to attend.

Then we hit our first hiccup.

The state’s permitting office informed PVW that since the rally would convene after closing time at the capitol, we would need to furnish our own restroom facilities. And this turned out to be expensive—roughly $700. In devising ways to fund the growing list of needs, we soon decided to ask our supporters to submit grant requests to foundations that support grassroots movements.

We thought the approach might grab some attention: Mass incarceration is shitty. Please fund a porta-potty so our people can protest.

Yes, we all laughed, too.

Another view of the Jan. 20 rally Photo by Kurt Meyers

We next had to find spokespersons, which wound up being rather easy. While sitting in our CLO circle naming people we knew, people who had served time with us, our list of potentials grew fast. We decided to make our selections and finalize the agenda as the rally day approached.

As a last step, PVW reached out to potential co-sponsors for the event, which resulted in humbling success. In addition to CLO and PVW, 22 organizations signed on.

Our Contribution

Members of CLO were excited by this show of support, but the disappointment at not being able to attend ourselves, though unspoken, was inscribed on every face. It’s funny (dark humor, of course) how the inability to show up resulted in feelings of inadequacy. Our families, friends, loved ones, and anyone else who would answer our calls would be going; but still many of us felt as if we weren’t doing enough.

Feeling inept prompted us to share something we had in spades—our knowledge about the systems of power that sustain the carceral state, and the grotesque forms of oppression it produces.

We set out to build interest in the event by developing clear talking points on the problems of mass incarceration and our ideas for solutions that could be released in a daily countdown to the rally.

The authors of this article took on that project.

We worked together, considering strategies for informative-yet-attention-grabbing posts, and immediately butted against some problems. Our history as jailhouse lawyers and college students made us lean heavily toward the use of citations and authorities, but we recognized that social media is known for quick and streamlined talking points.

In the midst of debating the best approach, we ended up in side-aching, cheek-glistening laughter. Neither of us had ever experienced Facebook. Keen’s last internet experience was in the days of Myspace dominance, and Hacheney’s last surf of the web came years before that, through dial-up and Alta-Vista—and yet here we were pontificating on best approaches for social-media posts.

We settled the tension between citations and concision by trying to limit authorities to one per post—though loyalty to this varied. The final products were typed on our Swintecs, mailed out, scanned by our family members, and released daily on PVW’s Facebook page

Rally Day Finally Arrives

Our daily post from the morning of the rally encouraged our supporters to attend and thanked them for their support. We called our families to see how things were going and learned that the morning message was liked and shared and shared and liked—momentum was building.

And the same was true on the inside. As the minutes ticked by and rally time drew near, our housing units buzzed with excited chatter as small pockets of people gathered everywhere, all focused on the same topic. The phones received twice their usual traffic as prisoners reached out to their people for updates.

Phone calls followed the stages of preparation. Snacks being made, last-minute signs drawn, convoys moving down the freeway, groups joining up on the capitol grounds.

The rally was schedule for a Monday, and that night we planned to hold our usual CLO meeting to share with each other the collective tidbits gathered from phone calls. But prison is filled with disappointment. Since it was a holiday, no CLO members made the call-out list, which is required for people to leave their living unit and come to the program building.

The CLO meeting had to be cancelled.

So we returned to the phones to get more updates and found out that the highlights were the speakers. Willie Jimerson, formerly incarcerated and now director of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, acted as emcee for the evening. Tara Simmons, one-time prison resident and now candidate for state office, gave a moving speech about the enduring effects of a criminal record.

John Lathon, released from prison in 2019 after 20 years, spoke about the need for second chances. Jeremiah Bourgeois, sentenced to life without parole at 14 and released 27 years later after his sentence was found unconstitutional, gave a moving oration highlighting why politically driven bodies like the clemency board are empty solutions.

Editor’s Note: Jeremiah Bourgeois is a columnist for TCR. You can download a collection of his columns just released on Amazon here.

People other than the formerly incarcerated spoke as well. Jeanie Darneille, state senator from Tacoma looking to solve systemic issues in the criminal legal system, gave a review of recent legislative activity and the need for more support. And Ann Williams, a retired prison official, voiced the need for balance between accountability and forgiveness.

Our speakers spanned all backgrounds and life experience, reflecting the reality that criminal justice reform is not just a poverty issue, a minority issue, or a knee-jerk-reaction-against-the-Establishment issue: It’s an everybody issue.

At 8:45 pm, we returned to our cells for the night, as usual. And as the steel doors clanged shut behind us, the real anxiety started. Surfing from channel 4 to 5 to 6 to 7 to 13—and back again—we checked all the local news stations to see if they would acknowledge PVW’s press release and report on the massive turnout.

Finally, just after 10 pm, King 5 answered our unspoken prayers and gave a two-and-a-half-minute segment to the rally.

All those months of planning, we concluded, had produced a success.

The Lessons We Learned

Society seems trapped in the ideological framework that history moves in a single direction—forward, toward goodness. This progressive view (we mean outlook, not politics) persists despite the caging of humans at rates never before seen in history.

And this things-are-getting-better narrative is so ingrained in society’s collective understanding that grotesque injustices like mass incarceration are ignored. They’re thought of as something either part of or soon to be in the past.

But if history does have an arc, it bends at this moment toward oppression.

The voices most essential to revealing this arc, identifying root causes to mass incarceration, and developing effective systemic solutions—the voices of the incarcerated—are the ones missing from public discourse.

Walls, razor wire, denial of voting rights, and lack of internet access, it won’t surprise anyone to know, are highly effective barriers to communication. Yet on January 20, members of the CLO and their supporters proved that we can overcome these barriers.

We dared to dream that through the hammer of protest and the anvil of persistence we can shape history in our favor—we can end mass incarceration. We will continue our mission of activism from the inside, and we rely on those outside to amplify the message beyond these walls.

For one brief moment on a Monday night in January, the walls separating us disappeared. The next morning, of course, they were just as high as ever.

But for a group of men who have grown used to powerlessness, nothing will ever be the same again.

Tomas Keen is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory where he chairs CLO’s Legislative Committee. Nick Hacheney, also incarcerated at WSR, is a long-time activist for criminal justice reform and former chair of CLO’s Legislative Committee. 

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