"Tell you what, bottom line," said the Honorable Gordon Godfrey, my sentencing judge, "you're a walking advertisement my friend, for the death penalty for kids your age that do stuff like this." The year was 1995, and I was being sentenced to three consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole. I was sixteen.
The judge‘s words have resonated in the back of my mind ever since, words that have given me the desire to atone and better myself, and the resolve to not be defined by a crime for which many would happily throw me away forever.
I remember being escorted for the first time into the Washington Correctional Center, the first destination for all newly sentenced prisoners in this state. It was April 3rd, 1996--three days before I would turn seventeen. I was taken straight to the Intensive Management Unit--IMU to those unfortunate enough to grace its confines--since DOC didn't quite know what to do with the minor now in their custody. They had deemed me too small of stature for mainline, saying I would be at risk of being assaulted by the adult prisoners. I would spend the next month in Shelton's IMU, locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, through no fault of my own aside from being too young to be there. After a month, I was loaded onto a chain bus bound for Walla Walla with no idea what to expect.
I often think about this timeframe of my incarceration, and I'm still stunned by the absurdity of what I was to face as a juvenile overridden to an adult institution. The Department of Corrections was never intended for juveniles. I would be constantly wading against the current and getting nowhere. Upon arrival at Walla Walla I was denied smoking privileges because I wasn't old enough to legally buy tobacco. I was to spend the next year of my life in IMU because DOC refused to allow me to live in general population until I turned eighteen. Once out of IMU I was denied the clearance to work in the industries area of the prison, where I could have learned work skills such as welding. The reason given me by my unit "counselor" was that I was "young, in shape, and with too much time." If I escaped, went his reasoning, it would make him "look bad." I was denied any education beyond a GED, since DOC views educating a "lifer" as a waste of resources.
Because of these restrictions, the first nine years of my sentence were spent without much in the way of opportunities for betterment. I had been thrown into the darkest, most violent environment in the Washington prison system with no available means for rehabilitation. Such a bleak circumstance doesn't do much to establish a young man's sense of worth.
Despite my stagnant circumstance, I did a great deal of growing up during those years, garnering my own sense of self and morality, both of which are incomprehensible to a sixteen year old boy. In 2004 I met an amazing woman, and we've been happily married for seven years. I‘ve sought out and completed--on my own--several self-help and behavioral programs. Recently, I earned an Associate‘s Degree through The University Beyond Bars, a non-profit operating inside this prison. I'm continuing onward, toward a Bachelor Degree. I wonder how any of this would fit onto the label I was given as a child, an "advertisement for the death penalty."
In this state, the DOC has a policy limiting the number of years a prisoner can work at a given job. My two years as a carpenter expired recently, forcing me to switch jobs. I had taught myself to build whatever they asked of me: inlaid conference tables and ornate bookcases; custom kitchens, bathrooms and roofs for the Extended Family Visit homes, where some prisoners are allowed to visit with their families for up to 48 hours every few months. I really enjoyed my job, and didn't think I would find another that compared. I was to be proven unexpectedly wrong.
Four months ago I began working in the Sustainability Plant Lab, which includes a Vermiculture facility (a worm farm), and a shop outfitted to refurbish bicycles and wheelchairs through another non-profit operating within the Reformatory. I work mainly on wheelchairs, a job that's proven to be a Godsend—for myself as much as for the less fortunate people whose lives are forever changed by the gift of mobility we provide. In 16 weeks, I have rebuilt 83 wheelchairs, and counting.
To some, what I do may not seem like much. But to a man whose worst act as a child emotionally devastated a community, one who was sentenced at sixteen to die in prison, my job means a great deal. It represents the chance to better eighty-three lives thus far. A way for me to tip the scales of redemption. I am still amazed when I consider that I am actually being paid to positively impact lives, and sometimes it nearly brings me to tears. In the simple act of fixing a wheelchair I am reminded of how I have fixed myself over the years, one broken piece at a time.
|Brian Bassett 749363|
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe WA 98272-0777
My name is Brian Bassett. I was sent to prison at the age of sixteen. I've spent the last twenty two years trying to better myself. I've attained an A.A. degree, and am currently in pursuit of my B.A. I've been very happily married since 2010, and hope to one day go home to my wife, where we can spend the rest of our days together.
View Brian's artwork here