Mass Incarceration Public Forum to Be Held on June 4th

The Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN) is encouraging the general public of Tacoma and the surrounding areas of Pierce County to attend a public forum about the effects of mass incarceration throughout the nation, and in particular, Tacoma.

Washington CAN will be hosting the event, which will be held at The Spirit of the Lord Ministries, 7209 S. Puget Sound Ave., at 6 pm Saturday, June 4th. Washington CAN is Washington’s largest grassroots community organization with over 40,000 members, according to their website. Their mission statement is, “To achieve economic, social and racial equality in order to establish a democratic society characterized by justice and fairness, with respect for diversity, and a decent quality of life for all those who reside in Washington State.”

In terms of the Tacoma forum, Washington CAN is focused primarily on the areas south of Seattle. Although Washington CAN is the leader of the public forum, the group is organized by local families and members of the community who have family members in prison or have previously served time. “The forum is about families of people who have loved ones in prison, formerly incarcerated folks, people will also be calling in from prison,” says Margaret Diddams, Tacoma’s Community Organizer for Washington CAN.

“They will be speaking on a panel about the need for a system of parole that allows people to get out [of prison]. A real kind of opportunity for everyone regardless of criminal charge to go before a citizen or community review board to determine how they have changed while in prison,” says Diddams.

The goal of the public forum is to educate and engage with the public about the fundamental issues with mass incarceration within diverse communities. “This is a social justice issue,” says Diddams. The forum is in its beginning phases of the campaign trail, as the meeting on June 4th will be the first, but it seeks to pass legislation, much like the Second Chance Act of 2007 (SCA), which was signed into action by former President Bush on April 9th, 2008. The SCA was enacted to improve public safety, break the cycle of criminal recidivism, and help formerly incarcerated people return back to their communities by providing them with federal housing through federally funded grants.

In 1984, Washington State did away with the parole system. There isn’t and hasn’t been a way for those imprisoned to show the life changes that they may or may not have made while serving their sentence. Thus, according to Diddams, long-term prisoners are not given the proper means to make the changes in jail.

This is something Mary Roberts, a mother of three, deals with on a daily basis. Roberts currently has two sons in prison, Dwayne has five years left on a 17 year sentence and Joseph had four years left on a 15 year sentence. “I am constantly on the phone encouraging them, sometimes they are really down. They have really turned to faith as an answer and it has really helped,” says Roberts.

“I had a nephew in jail for selling drugs. He spent 15 years in jail and when he came out he still couldn’t find a job. He finally just got a place to live. The jobs that he gets are usually temporary so it is really hard for him. If he can’t keep a job then he is homeless,” says Roberts, who wants to see a change in the perception of those who have been previously locked up. “They did their time, they should be given the opportunity to get a job, even in prison they work.”

She was emotional when talking about the time her children have spent in jail. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she said that it has been extremely difficult for her, that she fears her sons will face the same fate of unemployment when they are released from prison. She hopes that employers will begin to look past what people have done criminally and focus more on what the individual has done to improve their educational and employment background.

She also fears about cost of living for herself. She currently lives with a roommate that pays rent, but the majority of her money goes towards her two children in prison.

Roberts says that she currently pays $100-200 quarterly on food packages for both of her sons. She says the money adds up and the state does not pay for everything despite common belief to the contrary. “I have their food packages, their clothing—like shoes and stuff—they get their hair done and they trade commissary for that.” She says that it gets expensive and it’s hard for her as she is currently on disability. “I pay more for those two than I do for my bills,” says Roberts, “I will be glad when they get out because it will save me a lot of money.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.” Of that amount, 636,000 are released from prison each year, while over 11 million are booked into jail during the same period. One in five inmates are serving jail time for drug-related charges.

Roberts says that her sons have changed while in prison, “They have turned to faith,” says Roberts. “Faith, education, and other community groups. They’re not in gangs, we are talking about people who are community leaders in prison.”

She found out about the public forum through members of her church, and other community leaders who also have incarcerated family members. The group is fighting for there to be a community evaluation period after 15 years of incarceration. The community will look at what the prisoner has done throughout his/her time in jail and how they have changed as a person. The overarching goal is for the panel to see that the changes the prisoners have made are significant enough and that the individual is capable of being functional members of society.

It would be similar to a parole system, just different. Once released, those who are set free will be monitored to make sure that they are doing everything correctly. And if they don’t follow the rules of the system they will be sent back to prison.

“They don’t need to be held hostage for the rest of their lives,” says Roberts. “Some people change, some people don’t, but they all should be given a chance to prove themselves.” Washington CAN hopes to collaborate with local churches, community groups, and universities in their efforts to pass statewide legislation.

This is the first of many public meetings. Washington CAN hopes to do a monthly meeting but nothing has officially been set. All members of the public are encouraged to come.