Recently the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty and juvenile life sentences are unconstitutional. This is massive news, earth shattering for everyone in the Washington DOC, not just those directly affected.
Sometimes when short-timers ask me for help with their release planning or just want to vent about all their troubles like getting enrolled in school, finding work, or a release address, a certain sadness comes over them, a wave resembling embarrassment. They will be talking and all of a sudden their posture changes, their eyes look down and I can see on their face what they're thinking. They just realized their whining about all the hoops they have to jump through to get out of prison on their Earned Release Date (ERD) to someone sentenced to die in prison.
Suddenly, among their friends and acquaintances will no longer be people who aregoing to die in prison. And then they look back at people like myself, who've put in the work to deal with our trauma and become responsible adults, for whom nothing has changed.
Even amongst unaccountable unexpected joy, there is sorrow.
There is a coalition of organizations working to change this. Here at Monroe, the Black Prisoner Caucus (BPC) and Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) are working hard to get the laws changed. I am not a leader in either of these groups so I can't with authority say "This is the official position of the CLO and BPC." However, I attend the meetings, and listen with a keen critical ear and I am more than a little invested in how this turns out. I can say, "This is what I hear, this is what I understand, this is what makes sense to me."
When a 25-year-old does something stupid, even if that something stupid includes the murder of another human being, it is wrong to then tell that person "You will die in prison for what you did." Neuroscientists have proven that the human brain is not fully developed until 26 years old. Insurance companies figured this out a long time ago by looking at the statistics, which is why they don't let anyone under the age of 26 rent a car without a cosigner. They don't want to be liable for what that kid might do to or with that car. When a young person does something stupid they need to be made to understand the harm caused, but in that process permanent harm should not be done as punishment. Sentencing someone to die in prison of medical neglect, madness, or suicide after spending an unknown number of decades in a cage for something they did before their brain was finished developing, counts as "permanent egregious harm".
On the other end of things, when someone who is over 50 and has done at least 20 years, several factors seem to indicate that such a person should not be in prison any more.
First is aging out of crime. Above and beyond any other metric, age is the single greatest indicator of whether or not someone will come back to prison. The next strongest indicator is sentence duration. After 15 years the probability of recidivism no longer decreases. Therefore, once we've check marked these two boxes (old and been in prison a while) there is no "greater benefit" to society by keeping a body locked up.
The second consideration is quality of life and medical issues. Being in prison is bad for your health. The longer a person is in prison the the odds of contracting one of the following issues increases at a staggering rate as compared to people not in prison: Hypertension / Cardiac Issues, Diabetes, Obesity, Kidney Failure, Chronic Bronchitis/Pulmonary Issues, Hep C / HIV, and Cancer (notably Leukemia and Throat Cancers).
These are not cheap or easy issues to deal with. In prison any medical issue is made even worse because we can't choose our doctors or just swing by the local Rite Aid to pick up what we need to take care of ourselves.
For Example: The combination of prison food and lack of proper exercise causes many people in prison to become diabetic. Even after being diagnosed they are still fed the same garbage food. If someone with diabetes manages to get it under control, DOC medical will then take their glucose monitor away making it impossible to keep their diabetes under control. Diabetic shoes are not available until after wound care is necessary or necrosis is setting in.
And that's just the one issue. I am watching people I care about die by inches due to medical neglect. I try to hold space for them around that, all the while knowing that everything they are going through is my future. All because there is no review process for us to be released. I decided a long time ago that if I am over 60 and have declining health with no prospects for getting out of prison, then I'm opting out in a radical fashion. They can give me death with dignity or I can punch my own ticket, but I am not putting myself through what geriatric people in prison go through. Forty years in a cage is too much.
These two arguments form a sort of 'book ends' to the issue of mass incarceration in Washington State. By saying "25 and under AND 50 and over should not be locked up forever" we are effectively saying "No one in prison should ever be in prison for more than 25 years without a chance to get out, though it would be better if they had a chance every 15 to 20 years".
Thus far I've covered what we should not do (i.e. lock people up and throw away the key). It is much more difficult to articulate what we should do which brings me to the second part of this essay.
At the moment, if someone has a release date, they only have to keep breathing and not get in too much trouble to get out on their ERD. If they get in too much trouble then they get out a couple years later, on their max date. That's it. No need to reform themselves, educate themselves, deal with their trauma or anything of that nature. Furthermore, if someone has a sentence of "die in prison" and they put in the work to grow up and deal with their damage, there is currently only the clemency process as a possible (albeit, highly unlikely) means of not dying in prison.
Instead, wouldn't it make more sense to give people a chance to get out if they put in the work? Someone with a release date who doesn't do the work shouldn't be kept in prison past his mandate. However, if they do the work, they should get out far earlier than just a year or two prior to their max. Let's give people a motivation to change if they have a release date and a reward for having changed if they don't.
To do this we would have to treat each case individually (gasp!) with all the problems that come with that. Whether the review process would be through the preexisting ISRB (Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board) or a new Community Review Board, there would have to be a serious discussion about how to prevent racial bias or other discriminatory factors from affecting the outcome. This discussion would be with the Governor's office after we have legislation passed.
Just Washington's small piece of the Prison Industrial Complex is huge, so to make change happen the plan is to tackle it in small manageable chunks, and with each chunk we manage to tackle, it makes the rest a little more manageable.
Now I would like to direct your attention to a couple of terms I've purposely avoided thus far because they have become buzzwords, double speak. Life WithOut the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) and 'De Facto Life'. These are just other way of saying "die in prison". Let's call it what it is.
When the judge told me "For the crime of first degree aggravated murder you are sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole." I heard the following: "Because you are a bad person and killed people, I am having you locked up in prison until you die. And no, there is no chance of this being reconsidered because you are bad."
Which is just about the worst thing I've ever had anyone say to me. My trial wasn't just for the state to determine whether I was guilty or not, it was also for me to understand what happened. I was in the middle of a complete psychological breakdown when I killed my parents, and at the time of trial I had no memory of what had happened. To be told that I was completely beyond redemption was devastating.
Since then I've had a lot of solid people tell me that I'm a good person, despite what I did, because of person I am today. I struggle to believe them. I think I might be an okay person. It took me a long time and a lot of personal work to go from having serious doubts about anyone being quintessentially bad, to realizing that “anyone” includes myself.
The really hard question for me is “Should I die in prison for having killed my parents?" I've wrestled with this one a lot, going back and forth on the answer, depending on how I feel in the moment.
The Anti-Death Penalty folks say LWOP is a more humane alternative to the Death Penalty, but they don't seem to understand that it's still dying in prison. The only real difference between the Death Penalty and LWOP is how long I will spend in prison before I die, and how long that death will take. I already mentioned, that I am currently looking forward to 50-60 years of living in prison. That's 50-60 years of waking up each morning in a cage and being primarily defined as a person by the worst choices of my life. The only relief is death by either medical neglect or suicide. Whereas, if the Death Penalty still existed in Washington State, and I received it, then I would spend 15-25 years on Death Row, until I was executed by the State by hanging or by lethal injection. Less time in prison, and a swift death at the end of it, verses over twice as much time in prison and a slow death... unless I kill myself.
I hope this has helped you understand the conversations people in Washington prisons are having about the prospects of dying in prison and watching people we care about die in prison.
|Amber Fayefox Kim 315649 (please note that mail must be addressed to "Bryan Kim")|
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
Amber is a thirty year old transwoman serving life without the possibility of parole in Washington State. She is an activist, witch, student, writer, and not about to let some middling prison walls stand in the way of her dreams.
To learn more about Amber, please check out her blog: AmberFayefoxKim.WordPress.com