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How Prisoner-Led Organizing Saved My Life

Above photo: A Black Prisoners Caucus meeting at Clallam Bay Corrections Center from the documentary “Since I Been Down.” Facebook/Since I Been Down.

Joining the Black Prisoners Caucus helped me find direction.

And the opportunity to serve my community amidst a life-without-parole sentence.

To survive in prison, inmates usually accept a “convict code” that demands toughness and makes us wary of others.

To thrive in prison, I learned to embrace organizing for social change and discovered the rewards in thinking of others first. Contributing to a collective has helped me find deeper purpose in my life, even while serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Like most transformations in our lives, this didn’t happen overnight.

My introduction to organizing was the Black Prisoners Caucus, or BPC, at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington state. BPC is organized for many purposes, including legislative, religious, literary/educational, charitable and cultural events. Through the use of workshops, seminars, celebrations/banquets, films/videos and speakers in conjunction with other civic community based organizations, churches and foundations.

In 2012, while only a few years into my sentence, I was at a pivotal point in my life. I was drawn to gang activity and old patterns of behavior, but I also wanted to get past the destructive aspects of that convict code that seemed necessary to navigating prison life. I was young, impressionable, and confused, and then I had a conversation that changed my life forever.

I was walking around the track with the president of the BPC, explaining to him this crossroads I faced. As I wrapped up my gripe session, he stopped, placed his hand on my shoulder, looked me dead in my eyes, and asked this simple question: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life in here pleasing other people or do you want to get out of prison?” (Despite my life-without-parole sentence, clemency is still possible).

That seemed like a no-brainer, but I had to think long and hard about what it meant for my daily life.

It wasn’t immediate or easy, but I started the process of separating myself from gang life and began immersing myself in organizing. For the first time in my life, I had found a place where I felt I truly belonged, that gave me purpose, focused on goals greater than myself. As I let go of those negative beliefs and destructive behaviors that can seem to be an unavoidable prison reality, I grew as an organizer, and I learned some important lessons along the way.

1. Investment in the collective goes a lot further than investment in the chosen one.

One thing I noticed quickly is that those with natural charisma are usually given more opportunities and groomed for leadership positions. I wasn’t the most charismatic, but I was consistent and showed up ready to do whatever needed to be done. I did a lot of work during those beginning stages in my organizing, but was never noticed or acknowledged when a leadership position became available. I found myself having to scratch and claw my way into being involved.

From that experience, I learned a different form of leadership, focused on team building and investing in the uniqueness of each individual. I saw that focusing on one charismatic person and pushing that individual forward can achieve results in the short term. But as that individual receives praise and adulation, the collective is almost always left behind.

2. As leaders and organizers, it’s our responsibility to meet the needs of the people we serve. The spotlight should always shine on those goals, not on ourselves.

When I began organizing with the Black Prisoners Caucus, I didn’t really understand its purpose, but I hung in. With time, I began to understand why it was so important for Black men who are incarcerated.

When the BPC was created in 1972, the African American prison population did not have a space to express and explore their culture. Henry Grisby, one of the group’s founding members, told me, “Everyone had a group or a club except for us, and because of the racial prison politics that existed during that time, we were not allowed to participate in anyone else’s groups simply because we were Black. So, we created our own thing.” The BPC immediately provided that missing space to collectively organize and fight for the things that Black people needed but would never have unless they fought for it.

Now 50 years later, a Black Prisoners Caucus exists in almost every prison in Washington state, including the women’s facilities. Watching Black men from different gangs and geographical locations work together instead of fighting each other has been a powerful experience. It has shown me that if this work can be done in prison, it could be done in our communities.

3. It’s important to keep at it.

No group can function without community support, but a consistently high level of commitment isn’t guaranteed. For a long time, I fell into the trap of complaining when membership participation dropped.

At the height of the BPC’s growth at Clallam Bay, it seemed that every Black man, young and old, came to programs and filled whatever space we were in. But when it was time to work, there might be only a handful of us who showed up. Those empty seats would drive me nuts, and I brought it up in a lot of organizing meetings. Finally, someone said to me, in front of the whole group, that I should “focus on the seats that are filled and not the ones that are empty.”

As I have grown more in the organization, I understand that when it’s time to do work there will always be a few dedicated people willing to roll up their sleeves and get it done, and in those moments we need to focus on what we have and not on the things we don’t. If we would like to see things move in a particular direction, we have to keep at it and believe in the process.

4. Organizing is always about what you can contribute to the collective.

Organizing has changed me as a man in many ways, but one of the most important things I have learned is the value of service in creating a meaningful life. At first, I focused too much on what I could receive personally for being a part of the BPC. I found myself thinking about the things I was missing (such as spending time in the yards, gyms and dayroom) while working on BPC projects.

During events, I often felt like I didn’t have much to offer and was insecure about my place within the organization. But if I was asked to speak, pass out programs or set up the room, I did it. I now realize that what at the time felt like sacrifices were not really sacrifices at all. I gave up time that could have been spent on personal interests and took on jobs that sometimes felt uncomfortable, but eventually I saw that my contributions — combined with those of many others — had positive effects on the community.

Tough but tender

In 2017, I learned I would be transferred to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. During my final BPC meeting at Clallam Bay, I took one last look around the room at the faces I had grown so accustomed to seeing and realized that I likely would never again see the men who had the most impact on my life. As I began saying my final goodbyes, tears started falling, and I broke down crying in front of everyone. Despite being in an environment that encourages prisoners to exploit others’ weakness, no one ridiculed me for crying. Instead, I received love. When I left, the men of that community wrapped their arms around me, just as they had done when they accepted me.

When I got to prison at the age of 22 — carrying that life without parole sentence — I thought I had nothing to look forward to. Being a member of the Black Prisoners Caucus saved my life, metaphorically and perhaps literally. The BPC provided me with the opportunity to serve my community in ways I never knew possible. That circle of life had taken in a young man with no hope or sense of direction and created a man I can look at in the mirror and be proud of.

Today, I don’t show up trying to figure out what I can receive from the collective. Instead, I try to figure out what I can give. I came to the Washington Corrections Center as a man who was determined and focused, someone who understood his value to the collective.

What I’ve learned: You don’t have to be the most articulate speaker or writer, or have the best ideas to be effective in organizing. You don’t have to have the loudest voice, be the most charismatic or push to the front to lead the charge. Good work happens when we all show up and find ways to become involved. We learn about our value to the collective by showing up and doing the work.

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