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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Prison Teleprompter

By Isaac Sweet

Part One

I'm passionate about criminal justice reform, more specifically, sentencing and prison reform. I've been in this fight for a long time. I wrote my first letter in 2009, advocating a return to a system of parole, to Washington State Governor Christine Gregiore. I never got a response. The reason I wanted to shorten my prison sentence wasn't entirely selfish. I really wanted to be there for my family. My baby sister JaiDee was battling agoraphobia and a number of other health related issues. She survived until two months after her thirty-fifth birthday, in 2015. Our big sister, Heather, was a hardcore alcoholic. She was a mess for about a decade before she drank herself to death a few months after JaiDee died. Sometimes, I wonder if they would still be alive if I had been there. If they'd have had the brother they we're supposed to have….

My fight for justice reform is self-serving, but not in the way you might think, at least not anymore. At this point, any justice improvements legislated now are unlikely to be implemented in time to change my circumstances. I'm nearing the end of this chapter of my criminal justice journey. It is self-serving because I'd like to benefit from an improved, more rehabilitative criminal justice system as a community member. I want a system that doesn't throw people away like garbage. Because I'm not garbage. We are not garbage.

I started my life as a prisoner in 1996. I was eighteen. Along the way I've known guys serving sentences of every length, from a few more days to Life Without Parole (LWOP). I've made friends with guys who've done the most deplorable things. I am reminded of one of my early experiences with one of the most popular and well-liked guys in the joint. His name was Chris, and everyone respected him. I really got to know him at work. That's how we became friends. Chris was serving LWOP, and he too, came to prison at eighteen. One day, during our break, I asked him about his "beef." More specifically, why he did it, and how it made him feel. I was totally unprepared for what happened next. Chris just up and burst into tears. I was shocked. He sobbed uncontrollably, and it was uncomfortable. Then, without words, we went back to work. Eventually, we talked about it, but in that moment, he broke the stereotype for me. That's when I learned that "coldblooded killers" are a Hollywood construct. I've lived among lifers for nearly the last quarter century, and I have yet to meet one. There is more to each of us than our worst moment.

Rudy is another example. Thursday, we got to the chow hall, he offered me his tray. I asked why he wasn't eating. He said, "Today's the day." Then, I remembered last December 5th, and the year before that. December 5th is the date he committed the crime for which he serves a thirty-year sentence. Fasting on December 5th is his way of remembering and paying homage to his victim. Those of us who've been around a while all know Rudy's older brother, Oscar. He did seventeen years with us. Now, Ruru is like everybody's little brother. Quick Rudy story: A few years ago, on Christmas morning I woke just in time to see a little Christmas elf scurrying away. When I finally got off my bunk, I found a little Christmas tree and a few small presents wrapped in real holiday wrapping paper. 

I share these examples to illustrate the one thing that ties all of us prisoners together. It’s our humanity. We all suffer, both from the abrasive circumstances of prison, and the traumas that brought us here in the first place. We're human. We hurt. We care. And it matters.

The monster of mass incarceration is inhumane. It works to dehumanize and disconnect us from society. It probably wasn't intended to harm us individually, but that's what it does. Worse yet, it harms our families, friends, and extended communities. If you ever wonder why recidivism rates are so high, it’s because hurt people hurt people. The system we have right now doesn't merely fail to address the needs of hurt people, but it actually hurts people.

When something breaks there are usually multiple options to fix it. How many serious problems are responsibly solved with a one-size-fits-all approach? Why do we address broken people with the one-size-fits-all solution of incarceration? Some ask about crime victims; don't they deserve justice? Of course, they do, but what is justice? The dictionary says, "fairness, principles of moral rightness, and equity.” Routinely, crime victims are told they need justice. And it’s inferred that the longer the prison term imposed, the greater justice is served. But is sentencing our children to grow up without a parent, or our sisters to succumb to their demons alone, consistent with real justice? No, but it is the justice we know.

No amount of "I'm sorry" will ever adequately characterize my remorse for the harm I caused. Those are hollow words. But climbing in and out of a cage has been normal to me for more than two decades. The sound of the steel gate crashing behind me is as inconsequential as the sound of a car door to you. The indignities of living smashed together, elbow to elbow with others, and having things like showers and toilet paper lorded over me as privileges, well, that's just my everyday reality. This isn't punishment to me...anymore. It’s just life. My loved ones are the ones who continue to be punished. 

What I hope you will take away from this message is the idea of broken stereotypes. Realize that we are human. And recognize that our criminal justice system, in terms of volume of incarcerated, is the worst in all the civilized world.

On January 20, 2020, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a vigil organized by Prison Voice Washington is being held at 5pm on the north steps of the legislative building on the capitol campus in Olympia, Washington. It’s an attempt to raise awareness of mass incarceration. Organizers hope to get 1,300 people there to represent the 1,300 people currently sentenced to death by incarceration in Washington State. To learn more about this upcoming event, please visit www.prisonvoicewa.org.

Part Two

(Admin note:  Part Two was sent via personal correspondence and is being shared with permission)

Our last class with our outside classmates was an emotional experience that's incredibly difficult to describe. Before our final meeting the outside students took a tour of the prison and saw where we lived. They saw all the usual places. The yard, gym, chowhalls, worm farm, prison factories, etc., but they also got a chance to see a cell block.

We convened in a circle of chairs and began by asking what the outside students thought about our digs after their tour. They shared reflections which were, for the most part, anticlimactic. I'm not sure what they were expecting, but it didn't seem like it was their favorite part of the experience.

Once the conversation died down and there was a moment of awkward silence I spoke up. I told everybody that I had something I wanted to convey to the group. I said, "You all know I don't raise my hand to speak up much in class, but I've got something important to say. Part of the reason I don't like to speak publicly is that I suffer from anxiety and easily lose my train of thought, but this is important enough that I came prepared." I pointed to the papers in my hand and said, "I'll use the prison TelePrompTer." Everyone laughed. Then, I delivered my little prepared remarks. During which no one murmured, coughed, cleared their throat...nothing, you would've heard a pin drop. I adlibbed in a few places, which made it even stronger. I shocked myself by doing so well. It was my moment. My voice cracked a little when I mentioned my sisters, Heather and JaiDee, but I managed to hold it together for the most part. A few of the girls cried, as did at least one of the outside boys. A few of the inside guys just had a little dust in their eyes.

Afterwards, we ended up going around the circle verbalizing what our major take away from this experience was. About five of the students described this experience as "life changing." Many of them were seniors, and said ours was the most intellectually stimulating class they've taken. That's a profound statement when you consider that their entire college experience has been on campus at the University of Washington (UW). The kid sitting next to me said he initially intended to pursue a career as an engineer, but after taking a few Law, Societies and Justice (LSJ) classes, and this one in particular, he was more certain of what he wanted to do. He intends to go to law school and immerse himself in criminal justice reform. About half of them pledged to pursue criminal justice reform. Another girl, who's father is a leadership teacher, just balled her eyes out. She blubbered something about gratitude, but her message was difficult to discern between sobs. Afterwards, she came over to me and I can't remember everything she said because I was so overwhelmed at the experience, but I wish I could've had some simple conversation with her. She was incredibly supportive and intelligent during the course. The professor closed out the session with some brief remarks. He shared some history of his involvement with the "mixed enrollment" program. He taught the first class of its kind, and he felt that he and the outside students were getting the better end of the deal. Its noteworthy that this professor was the head of the entire LSJ program at the UW for like eight years until he stepped down this year.

After class, the professor sought me out and told me he didn't, "see that coming!" He expressed his profound disappointment that he was unable to video or tape record my presentation. He pointed to my prison teleprompter and asked if he could have a copy. He also told me that he presented my 2014 "Faces of Life" video (which can also be viewed here) to his students in his orientation. Isn't that crazy? One of my video clips is used in a UW, Law Societies, and Justice orientation. Anyway, the professor really appreciated my testimony. As did the outside student body...

At the conclusion of the day there were more tears...because we were saying goodbye. Everyone said thank you, and everyone was profoundly affected by my message. It was a home run. Throughout the course, I was arguably the quietest student in class, but today I was center stage. The professor also thought that fact in particular, lent to the impact of it.

When I returned to my cell, I found that I too, was emotional. It took several concerted efforts to stem tears of my own. I can't explain why. I simply don't know. Maybe it was because having such a profound effect on these young people had a profound effect on me. Maybe I was sad because this was the last time I would see them. Maybe it was because of the anxiety and apprehension over the public speaking. I just don't know, but I got to talk about my sisters, and everybody in the room knew how much I loved them. And they knew, contrary to popular belief, that the men they had just spent their class time with over these past several weeks were human.

Please, clear your schedule for Monday, Martin Luther King Jr day, January 20, 2020. There will be a "Rally to End Mass Incarceration" on the north steps of the State Capitol building in Olympia at 5:30 p.m. Organizers would like to get 1300 people there to represent the 1300 people currently sentenced to death by incarceration in Washington State prisons. You can learn more at: prisonvoicewa.org.

One of the primary goals of Prison Voice Washington and its partners is to reduce mass incarceration and improve public safety by reintroducing a system of parole. This justice improvement would incentivize individual change through earned release. Instead of wastelands of humanity and tax dollars, prisons would transition into an agents of and investments towards change. This policy shift will effectively make prisons safer for prisoners, prison workers, and our communities who welcome back the formerly incarcerated. Safer communities translates into fewer crimes and fewer crime affected people. According to crime victim advocate sources, the vast majority of crime victims are less concerned with retribution, and primarily concerned with crime prevention, more specifically, preventing someone else from suffering their fate. prisonvoicewa.org



Isaac Sweet 752399
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

2 comments:

A citizen said...

Mr. Sweet

I feel it fair to say the majority of people in the “free world” do not have the insight/depth that you seem to possess.
Think about this if you will. Young minds absorb general everyday issues/circumstances that are for the most part repetitive. Surely life does have occurrences that are indelible however for the most part its the same and quite frankly once a person reaches a certain maturity they do not change. If someone heads south then I believe it takes a great deal of determination, therapy or whatever you want to call it to change for the better.That is if the person truly wants to change.
I liken your insight to a person looking at the ocean surface. Obviously there are waves, however beneath is where life is truly teeming.

My point is you showed these few and very fortunate students what’s below the surface. Your incarceration is at best difficult for you and clearly them. Thus their tears.. Relish in the fact/thought that you most likely changed many minds for the better.

Maybe you were put on this earth for that reason. You think those students could have been moved like that by a professor in a college classroom? I doubt it.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your thoughts. You are well spoken. I wish you success and happiness with the next chapter of your life. I share your passion for sweeping reform in the criminal justice system that lends itself to actually aiding inmates with positive change and keeps them more engaged with their families.