Above Photo: Members of Concerned Lifers at their 2014 conference. Facebook/Concerned Lifers.
A 50-year-old organization led by prisoners with life sentences has emerged from a COVID shutdown to fight for the abolition of legalized slavery.
On Dec. 5, I sat in a circle with 30 prisoners at the Washington Correction Center in Shelton, Washington. As we looked around the room, anticipation, resolve and relief reflected in our eyes — yet we were all eager for this moment.
Unable to meet due to COVID restrictions, we watched the world change around us for nearly three years. During this time tragedies like the murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and countless others took place, and justice reform became a dinner-table conversation for many Americans. As incarcerated activists, we sat silenced, unable to convene — even though, as stakeholders, experts in the field and leaders in justice reform efforts in Washington state, we have a lot to contribute. Nevertheless, our passion for the work smoldered, and this circle was the oxygen needed to light the fire of our movement once again.
I looked around the room with pride, then uttered the most powerful five words I will ever speak, “Welcome to Concerned Lifers everyone.” To those of us familiar with this call-to-order, they were words we thought would never be spoken again.
This circle, a true microcosm of America, was filled with people of every ethnicity and representatives from various socially active groups. As we introduced ourselves, people in the circle identified themselves by name, membership and other affiliations.
Represented amongst the prisoners were members of the Black Prisoners Caucus, Tribal Sons, Asian Pacific Islanders, Look2Justice and Liberation Media. Among the groups’ sponsors (free citizens who come into the prison and share our circle) were representatives of the University of Washington, the Washington Sentencing Guidelines Commission, and United Church of Christ In Works.
We met with ambitious goals in mind: to end mass incarceration, redress grievances of marginalized groups and form community, against all odds.
The Concerned Lifer’s Organization, or CLO, last met in the spring of 2020 at the Washington State Reformatory, or WSR, in Monroe — where it had existed since its founding in 1972. Over the years, thousands of prisoners have been CLO members, with Monday night meetings attended by 30 people or more. After COVID shut meetings down — but before the veil of lockdowns lifted — WSR unexpectedly closed in 2021. This left CLO members without hope we would ever meet again. Despite its 50-year history in Washington state, no other prison had ever allowed the CLO or any kind of organizing among Lifers (people serving life without parole and sentences that they cannot outlive). But now that’s finally changing.
Breaking into a new prison puts CLO on unfamiliar territory, a fact not lost on the members who have been around a while. While some contemplate whether this precedent represents a sea-change in correctional philosophy or is just an anomaly, others prefer to focus more on the work ahead.
The need for the CLO today is just as strong as it was a half century ago. Henry Grisby, a founding member of the CLO, recalls that initially the group met as a way to establish positive relationships with prison administrators in hopes to improve prison conditions. Over the years, CLO has successfully advocated for higher quality food and mattresses, while also helping facilitate access to rehabilitative and educational programs. Now 82-years-old, Grisby slightly closes his eyes as he discusses the early days of the CLO. He recalls that it didn’t take long for early members to realize that “in order to get change it would have to come from the outside.” And in order to enact change from the outside, prisoners needed to engage with the public.
Towards this goal, no single person worked harder — or longer — for the CLO than the late Rev. Jonathan Nelson. He would incessantly advocate for the Lifers. Originally coming to the prison as a Lutheran Minister, Nelson quickly realized people inside needed more than spiritual food. Through his advocacy in the community, free citizens would learn about the CLO and be invited into the circle. By word of mouth, Nelson would invite curious people in and they would be blown away by the sincerity and fellowship of the prisoners they found inside. Through a model of meeting with people and sharing their stories, the CLO grew in community.
Rev. Corey Passons was a young citizen — not yet on a path of public service — when he heard a man at church named Darel Grothaus give thanks for the time spent in a CLO meeting. Interested in his experience, Passons accepted an invitation to WSR. On his first ride into the prison, he met Nelson, and soon after was moved to become a sponsor for the group. Passons sponsored the CLO from 2004-2016 and asserts that the CLO was a learning experience for him. He also says learning about the justice system — the biases and racism in society — changed his life trajectory and put him on a path of public service. Now, with the CLO restarting, he is once again a sponsor.
Recalling his first meetings back in 2004, Passons said “I had never heard stories like these, and it didn’t take me long to realize that if I grew up in a setting like those it could just as easily be me staying behind when the sponsors walked out of the room.” Through interactions with regular people, professionals and other organizations in the community, the CLO has impacted society in countless positive ways.
As stakeholders and impacted people, the CLO serves as a resource for professionals and works with them to enact change. Katherine Beckett, who heads the Law Society and Justice program at the University of Washington, has been a sponsor of the CLO since 2014. In her time with the organization she works alongside the CLO to raise public awareness and further understanding on the human cost of mass incarceration. Beckett says that her work is undoubtedly inspired by the time she has spent in the CLO, and members of the CLO say that their work would be much harder without the ardent support of professionals like Beckett.
The fruits of this relationship can be seen in the About Time report, published in collaboration with ACLU Washington. This report proves racial bias in Washington’s judicial system with regard to long-term and life sentences. Beckett credits the CLO and Black Prisoners Caucus as instrumental allies in compiling the stories and data for this report. Working relationships like the one formed between the CLO and professionals like Beckett are critical to achieving informed social policies that work towards equitable solutions that dismantle mass incarceration.
In addition to reports, Beckett points to the work done within the CLO to dismantle the foster-care-to-prison pipeline as another example of the organization’s impact. In 2016, Arthur Longworth, Jeff Fox and other prisoners (including me) founded the State Raised Working Group as a committee within CLO to address disproportionate representation of former foster youth among the prison population.
As the founders of the committee, and former foster youth ourselves, we knew all-too-well the trappings of the “state raised” experience. Reaching out to community members, community organizations, politicians and professionals, we raised awareness of the intersection between foster care and mass incarceration. This work culminated in strong relationships with organizations like Treehouse — which helps foster youth navigate educational development and graduate high school — and people like Secretary Ross Hunter of the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families. Working with Treehouse and Secretary Hunter, the State Raised Working Group helped develop and fund a mentorship program for at-risk foster youth that aims to pull those youth out of the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.
Over the years the CLO community has grown strong — in true grassroots fashion, by word of mouth, by personal connection and by achieving consensus on principled positions with a view towards reform.
The CLO held yearly conferences at WSR titled “Ending the Crime Cycle.” Every year these conferences would feature lawmakers, policy wonks, lawyers, advocates, community organizers and concerned citizens. Around 150 people who had shared Monday night meetings throughout the year fill these conferences. Speakers, both prisoners and free professionals, would give talks, and people would leave with a call to action — simple steps to take to achieve change.
In 2018, the CLO had built enough political capital to push post-conviction relief legislation. The CLO Legislative Committee drafted a bill, and the community mobilized around it. Senate Bill 5819 (SB5819), as it came to be called, would have created a post-conviction review process for prisoners who had served over 15 years in prison. Prior to the bill being voted on, members of the CLO gave public testimony via Zoom on the impact this bill would have on society and on the criminal justice system. Although the bill did not succeed, valuable lessons were learned that day.
Nick Hacheney, then-chair of the CLO Legislative Committee, notes that we had stuck together through a tough time, kept our word to each other, and maintained solidarity based on our principals. From this moment Hacheney was sure we could “build upon that foundation and keep pushing for comprehensive sentencing reform for all.”
With lessons learned from the fight for SB5819, the CLO was more determined than ever. The organization went to work on new strategies to push for much needed change. On Jan. 20, 2020, the CLO, in collaboration with Prison Voice Washington, organized the Rally to End Mass Incarceration on the steps of the Capital building in Olympia. That night we held a candle light vigil for the 1,300 people sentenced to die in Washington prisons. A candle for each person lined the steps, guest speakers addressed the crowd, and live music was performed for the nearly 400 people who attended that cold winter night.
“That night was a moving experience,” recalled, Chelsea Moore, executive director of Look2Justice, an organization focused on civic education started by members of the CLO advocacy community. “It was great to see so many people that have been working on criminal justice reform all there looking to further the movement. Knowing we were there because of the work the guys inside did to organize it made the night even more powerful.”
The Rally to End Mass Incarceration was a first step in an escalated strategy for the CLO — a strategy that the organization intends to pursue as it begins to work again. This strategy focuses on wielding political capital in ways that are impossible for lawmakers to ignore, like rallies in public spaces. It is not enough to bring reasoned arguments for change if those arguments can then be ignored by people with power. While one way to achieve change is to disrupt spaces, another is to fight battles asymmetrically — changing the conditions around the issues to achieve desired outcomes, as opposed to tackling the issues head-on.
This year, Rep. Tara Simmons, the first formerly incarcerated member of the state legislature, introduced HB 1024, a law that will stop forced labor and pay prisoners minimum wage in Washington prisons. This legislation is yet to pass, and while we remain hopeful, the CLO is currently developing an asymmetric strategy to achieve the same result.
Our approach will first be to reach out to free citizens in the community and educate them on the 13th Amendment, which allows for those convicted of crimes to be slaves under the U.S. Constitution. Next, we are going to draft legislation that proposes an amendment to the Washington constitution prohibiting all forms of slavery, since state constitutions can be more — just not less — protective than the federal constitution. Therefore, the amendment would supersede provisions for legal slavery currently carved out in U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment. We then plan to collaborate with lawmakers like Simmons to introduce our legislation in the next session.
This approach will change the legal landscape, in effect producing the same conditions that HB 1024 is now attempting to create. It is easy for lawmakers to oppose a law paying prisoners minimum wage, and much harder for those same lawmakers to stand against prohibiting slavery.
According to longtime CLO member Look2Justice co-founder Christopher Blackwell the pendulum is swinging back. “The narrative around crime now in local and national news is reminiscent of that from the early 1990s. This narrative was foundational in the construction of the carceral state. Countering this narrative is our number one goal.”
Members of the CLO agree that the tide is turning. But there is yet time to stall, or disrupt its pull. For Lifers, this is more than a matter of right and wrong; it’s a matter of life and death.
Our backs are truly against the wall. We fight for change, or we roll over on a bunk and wait for a miracle — for mercy — while hoping not to die in prison. We Lifers know the difference between a life sentence and a death sentence: merely duration and method. In Washington State, we have death by hanging, death by lethal injection and death by incarceration — the most prevalent and most overlooked form of state sponsored execution. They call it a life sentence, but that is a misnomer. Any prison sentence that a person cannot outlive is a sentence to death.
As long as there is a CLO, we will fight to end mass incarceration. We will fight because it is the right thing to do and because we are fighting for our lives. We will do it as we always have done — by connecting with people, sharing our humanity, working for and with community, and holding true to principals that allow diverse people to coalesce and have unity. There is work to be done.