Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr, by Cecilia Conley
We are happy to be part of this movement that will go down in history as the movement that recognized incarcerated individuals as people and broke through paradigms and old traditions. The movement that is pushing and will continue to push legislation and initiatives for ones that make more sense from both financial and humanitarian perspective.
Many communities and families have been affected by policies that were enacted to be “Tough on crime” but not “Smart on crime.” Some 30 years ago, many states across the country got rid of the Parole system and implemented actions that resulted in longer sentences across all types of offenses.
Thirty years later, crime has not declined. Thirty years later, the cycle has not been broken. Our prisons are overpopulated, and the average age of an incarcerated individual is 43. The prison population is aging as we speak. Soon those prisons will have to become retirement homes, and the question that we ask is, are we being “tough on crime” or more “punishment oriented”?
When the architects of this republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, there was a promise that all Americans would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our prison systems have become the opposite. They have reclassified these incarcerated individuals as second class citizens and denied them the right of proper care, rehabilitation, and sentencing guidelines that are supported by science and facts rather than just gut and feelings.
But we refuse to believe that nothing can be done. We refuse to define all of them as monsters that cannot rehabilitate. We choose to believe society should be accountable as part of the problem. Many of them were victims before the crime even happened. Mental illness, broken homes, poverty, and drug addiction are on the rise, and we cannot deny that these factors have a direct relationship to the mass incarceration of this country.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of this moment. That is why we need to take action now. This past Monday, 20th of January, in commemoration of Martin Luther King, we had the opportunity to be part of “Day of Action in Olympia to End Mass Incarceration in Washington”. It was the first time that such a peaceful candlelight demonstration was held in which we lit a candle in the Capitol for the 1300 men and women who will die in Washington prisons because their sentences are so long they can’t possibly outlive them.
“We need to find a different way for accountability. Throwing them in a cage is not the answer”, Annie Williams, advocate and victim proclaimed.
We cannot trust the future in politics, we reaffirmed, as JJ Bourgeois pointed out that we need Parole because Clemency is full of politics. It has to be signed by the Governor, he said. It doesn’t matter if you have merit. In politics, no one wants to take a risk. He spoke based on experience; he served 25+ years for a crime he committed before his 18th birthday. It was a change in law related to juvenile offenders, the one which allowed him to be paroled.
“If we restore the voting rights to the individual as soon as he/she is released, legislators may start paying attention to their future constituents instead of ignoring their needs”, Tarra Simmons, formerly incarcerated and who is currently running for State Representative in Washington State, suggested.
And all of us were very moved by Sen. Jeannie Darneille‘s story. She spoke about her first experience dealing with the injustices of the system. It was she who after the realization that felons could not vote, decided to fight for a change. After several tries she was finally successful, but that did not stop her. She is still fighting at the Capitol and constantly pushing bills related to prison reform.
We want to thank Carol Estes and her organization Prison Voice WA for making this happen, bringing such a powerful team of organizations and speakers who are fighters of the cause. Their passionate speeches empowered the audience who is hungry for change. Change that is based on facts, not feelings.
So today, even though we face some resistance and misconceptions, we have a dream. A dream that one day this nation will live up to the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.
We have a dream that this land of Martin Luther King Jr. will recognize that a person is not its worst mistake. We have a dream that everyone will recognize incarcerated individuals as people and will understand that rehabilitation is possible if the individual is provided with the right tools and programs.
We have a dream that this country will be able to heal its victims, starting with the ones who are often ignored and forgotten, rotting in cells. We have a dream that one day we will drop the “tough on crime” and will start to be “smart on crime” following models already proven in different countries such as Norway.
This is our hope; this is what keeps us moving and fighting. With this hope, we will be able to transform this country. Until that day comes, we will not stop.
Special thanks to Caleb Twidwell and OG #MANIFESTSOMETHINGBEAUTIFUL for representing Designed Conviction at the event.