Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sixty-six and Counting...On Justice Reform

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By Isaac Sweet

She is a sixty-six year old, cancer-surviving, type-two diabetic. She is also the World's Greatest Mom. As a young woman she put aside dreams of a career in archaeology to raise a family. Though plagued with a multitude of obstacles including, health concerns, divorce, financial instability, etc., she faced each one with a courageous smile. She led by example. She had to - she had six of us.

As I reflect on just how many sacrifices Mom made for us when we were young, I cannot help but be amazed. I remember complaining about having to wear second hand clothes, but come to think of it, she was in rags. I belly-ached about the food, but at times she didn't even eat. She was faced with hard choices but she always made the best one. She handled each situation with superhero composure - even when we kids were in trouble. Though we were too young to understand most of the life lessons, we knew she did an amazing job. We had everything we needed: toys, ample attention, and most importantly, unconditional love. Mom didn't show us how to play sports or ride bicycles and skateboards, but she did teach us character, values, resolve, and perseverance. She even taught us how to scream and jump up onto a chair every time she saw a spider, especially if it was big and mean looking - oh, one the size of a dime or so. Yeah, Mom is awesome. I wish there was more I could do for her now. I am, as she often reminds me, her only son.


In school I was the chubby, awkward kid with glasses. I really wanted to fit in and be cool. Instead, presented an easy target for practical jokers and sometimes worse.

A few weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I was befriended by a man eight years my senior. I liked him because he was adventurous and personified "Joe Cool." He liked me because I was an easily manipulated teenager with a truck. One day he gave me an ultimatum, and I made the wrong choice. Chose compliance over courage and participated in a crime genuinely wanted no part of. I drove the getaway vehicle. Instead of graduating from high school, I was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and assault, and given an exceptional prison sentence of nearly thirty-six years.

Each day, I climb in and out of a cage like a well-trained animal. It doesn't even feel like punishment any more. Over the years I've grown accustomed to it. I have gotten used to some of the angry bullies working as prison guards, and I've even conditioned my palate to the institutional gruel. The real punishment is being separated from my loved ones as they grow old, suffer, and pass, sometimes without saying goodbye. One day, I returned from my prison work detail to find a post-it note on my bunk from my counsellor that said: "Call home - your Grandpa had a heart attack." When I finally got to a phone, I tried every number knew to no avail; they were all at the hospital. Years later, I got a surprise visit from my mom and sister who both began to sob at the sight of me. They had come to tell me that my dad only had a few hours left. A few years after that, a guard woke me in the middle of the night and told me my Grandma had died. But nothing could prepare me for what happened in 2015. On my way back from lunch, I was summoned to my counsellor’s office. My baby sister, the one who had previously come to tell me about my dad, passed away just two months after her thirty-fifth birthday. My stomach didn't stay full for long. A few months later, I was summoned to the Sergeant's office. Heather, my big sister, hadn't made it through the night. She was forty-two.

I survive decade after decade in prison, often wondering what it would've been like to live a normal life, or to have a family of my own. Would I have been a good husband and father?


Roughly two generations ago, a criminal justice revolution swept our nation. It was fuelled by fear of largely fictitious "super predators," and by criminal justice experts who claimed rehabilitation was a "myth." The big idea dominating the trend was "determinate sentencing." Endorsed by the federal government as the solution to punishment disparities, determinate sentences were embraced by most states. However, as parole boards were being eliminated all across our country, so were the incentives for convicted felons to pursue self-improvement. We are still suffering the consequences of that paradigm shift.

The term "mass incarceration" commonly accompanies disturbing statistics such as "the United States has five percent of the world's population and twenty-five percent of the world's incarcerated population." From my prison cell, I lack the resources to qualify the numbers but live in an environment densely populated with men serving draconian prison sentences. In 1984 the Washington State Legislature produced the "Sentencing Reform Act." Thus began our state's era of politically influenced, purely punitive justice. This legislation introduced a one-size-fits-all determinate sentencing scheme and provided prosecutors with their greatest bargaining chip yet - the other death penalty: life without the possibility of parole. To accommodate angry voters and further political careers, members of the legislature have revisited portions of the S.R.A. every year to stiffen penalties and lengthen sentence guidelines. At some point, people have gotten desensitized to the overwhelming number of years or lifetimes imposed. Our criminal justice system has spiralled out of control. For substantive proof, simply google prison growth in Washington State during the final thirty years of indeterminate sentencing (roughly 1954 to 1984) and compare that to prison growth of the past thirty years (roughly 1984 to 2014). Mass incarceration is the result of a system restructured around punishment.

Returning to an indeterminate sentencing model would improve public safety, reducing recidivism by reintroducing the fundamental concept of rehabilitation and incentivizing it. Rehabilitative treatments, classes, programs, or training are important, but incentive motivates people to apply themselves in earnest. The opportunity to earn freedom would provide incarcerated people compelling incentive to pursue positive change. Increases in individual improvements will yield safer communities.

Washington State can reduce mass incarceration by returning to a parole based, sentencing system. A large number of prisoners, such as myself, are serving exceptionally long or lifetime prison terms, have matured beyond any further criminality, and no longer pose a threat to public safety. Despite the emergence of aging prisoners as the most expensive prison population demographic, we quietly remain in prison. To serve decades in prison past the point of our reform serves no benefit for society.

For several years, I have worked to become the best person I can be. I am focused on pursuing education and preparing for my future. I continue to develop character and mature with integrity. Contemplate my actions and consider how they will affect others. I strive to be courteous, make responsible decisions, and set a positive example. I continue to learn each day and encourage others to do the same. While there is nothing I can do to change the past, I hope to use my life experiences to help prevent others from making similar poor choices. Maybe I can make a difference.


Over the years Mom has aged pretty well. The color has faded from her hair, and she has slowed down a little bit but she still gets around okay. She isn't hopping up on chairs anymore, but I'm sure she can still muster up a loud enough scream to scare any old spider away.

Losing my two precious sisters deeply affected Mom. She seems to have lost a little motivation and sometimes speaks in monotone. She's not as talkative or optimistic as she used to be. This year I turned 39 and it marks the first birthday in my life that Mom didn't send a card. I'm concerned about her. She's pretty smart, and given her health history she knows she probably isn't going to break any lifetime records. Recently, she went shopping for another car, but she didn't bother looking at any brand new ones because, she said, it will probably only need to last her three or four more years.

Mom still smiles and waves when she gets honked at in traffic, and she says "Excuse me," when hurried shoppers bump into her at the grocery store. She really is the coolest little old lady. Not long ago she took a bad fall at the gas station and lost one of her front teeth. There was no one to call, and she had to drive herself home. I wish I could've been there. Unfinished projects are piling up around her house and now she's hoping the roof will last another winter. I wish I was there to show her how much I appreciate her, to reciprocate the love and protection she has always given me. She certainly deserves it. Instead, regardless of the difficulties involved, she'll continue making a few trips each year to whichever prison warehouses me, and she'll do it in champion form.

Please, before it's too late, help provide me the opportunity to be there for the World's Greatest Mom. Contact your local legislators and ask them to pursue and support legislation to undo the damage of the Sentencing Reform Act. Ask them to replace determinate sentences with indeterminate sentence review boards and reinstate Washington's quality control release mechanism: parole. Ask them to legislate solutions to mass incarceration that would inspire people to pursue personal positive change. You can find any necessary contact information by typing: into your search engine.


Isaac Sweet 752399
WSRU D-2-27
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are an incredible writer. Your mother must be so proud of you.